Sunday, February 21, 2010

Buddha & Science: A Buddhist Post-Mortem

 To die or not die, that is the question...

Death is coming! There is no evidence to suggest that anyone who has lived, is living, or will live, will not die: we are all subject to a death sentence awarded us the moment we were conceived. This transient nature of our existence is, of course, a natural one. Although some religious traditions may ascribe our mortality to some ancient event such as 'the fall of man', there is no scientific evidence to back such tales up. Furthermore, all living creatures will eventually die, both fauna and flora. Even the Earth is not eternal, according to scientists, along with the Sun and all the other stars in this universe. Death is coming!

Looking a little more closely at our own human demise, what does science tell us? Well, when someone stops breathing and the heart ceases to beat, that person is a 'goner.' This demise may be caused by natural causes such as illness or aging, but also accidents, war, murder, manslaughter, and suicide are also potential reasons for someone dying. And, after death, the body (if it is still intact) will decompose, eventually ending up as a bunch of crumbling bones. But, where is the mind of the dead human being, according to the boffins? Well, in a word, nowhere. The mind, being the result of complicated processes in the brain, ceases upon death. (Most) in the scientific community declare that it vanishes in an existential 'poof' at the end of life.

Now, in traditional Buddhism, along with the belief systems of many cultures around the world, death is indeed the end of the physical body as scientists claim. (At least for now - some religions such as Christianity do teach of a literal bodily resurrection at some point in the future.) As to the mind, most religions teach that there is an eternal aspect to it called the soul that transcends physical death, whilst in Buddhism we find the more complicated idea that some aspects of the mind continue from birth to birth, but not an intact and eternal soul or mind, as such. Either way, there's a departure here from the modern scientific position that nothing survives death, either physical, mental, or 'spiritual.'

As Twenty-First Century Buddhists, what are we to make of these differences between science and the traditional Buddhist conceptions of death and the afterlife? For, the only afterlife accepted by the modern scientific understanding of the term is in the passing on of our genes, or in making a lasting impact on the people or society with which we have interacted whilst alive. This is very different to Buddhist understandings of this topic, where the rebirth of people's mind-continuum from to life to life is not only believed in, but allegedly documented. (See the reincarnation histories of the Dalai Lamas for examples of the latter.) Moreover, as in most traditional cultures, Buddhism attests to the existence of ghosts and spirits, phenomena that the far mass of Thai Buddhists believe in, for example.

Within Buddhism there is another attitude towards death which takes a much more immediate and, it must be noted, scientific approach, and that is to use our mortality as a subject for meditative reflection. Here, we are not dealing with beliefs or cultural assumptions pertaining to mortality, but in looking death in the eye and seeing what effects this process creates in us. It is a way to not only to come to terms with our own human mortality, but to actually psychologically transcend it, letting go of the fear that normally accompanies such considerations, and 'dying' into the present moment.

What is the focus of this fear that usually infects our contemplation of death? Essentially, it is the fear of losing one's self, that sense and idea of being this particular person in a world of separate individuals. We fear death because we fear the non-existence of the self. But, according to both science and Buddhism - though in slightly different ways, it must be noted - the self is an impermanent collection of elements that will not only eventually dissolve away, but are constantly changing throughout our lives. Both the idea of self and the feeling of being a self are themselves ephemeral processes in the human mind that will one day cease.

Wisely reflecting upon death, with a mind already pacified by meditative practice, can bring about a radical alteration in our understanding of ourselves and in our experience of our lives. When we are able to calmly consider that death is all-inclusive, and that no part of the self will escape its clutches, then we are able to accept death, and live life with the full appreciation that the present moment deserves. Paradoxically, in this acceptance, we are ripe to realize that all that is to die is not my self, anyway, taking us to another level of realization on the Buddhist Path. For, whether we take the scientific view of death, or whether we cling to a particular set of afterlife beliefs, or simply keep an open mind on the subject, as individuals our mortality is a fact, and yet, seeing beyond the ego is seeing beyond death, for there is no one to die! With this insight, our understanding of death is transformed: Death is coming? There's no such thing!

So, what do you make of death? Do you ascribe to a traditional understanding that something in us survives our physical demise? Or, do you take the modern scientific view of death that indicates nothing of our individuality transcends the cessation of our vital signs? And what of the notion that in truth there's no one here to die, anyway, and that if we can realize this fact wholeheartedly, we will have no need to fear that which cannot touch us? Please jot down your thoughts via the comments section below...before it's too late!


Was Once said...

I thank you
for your post about death.

Having lived through a near death experience, which gives one the feeling of one of the deep jhānas(which I have only touched upon twice in meditation since, and hopefully will again). It seems to me from this experience what does go on is a mere hint(subtle consciousness) of what we think of as "ourself." By the way, it was so wonderful...the nurses had to call me back while intubating me.

Regardless, what really remains after we die are the compassionate ways we touch those around us now and the ripples it makes. I would like more than anything to have a memory of me being a positive and loving one...where the receiver would launch into a smile. Because words can't explain.

G said...

Fascinating, Was Once.
My grandmother had a NDE which she said changed her experience of life. I've never read of a similarity between NDEs and deep meditative mind states - something worth exploring, no doubt. The following is beautiful:

"(W)hat really remains after we die are the compassionate ways we touch those around us now and the ripples it makes."

Allison said...

Very thought provoking post. I think that there is no possible way to know what happens after death. A near-death experience is not itself death, therefore we can not possibly determine what happens after we die. It is part of the human condition that uncertainty is far more intolerable than holding on to false knowledge - so all of us, of every religion, tend to want to believe something about the afterlife is true. I can no more prove reincarnation than a scientist can prove that no spiritual afterlife exists. I believe that freedom from the fear of death must involve embracing uncertainty.

G said...

"I believe that freedom from the fear of death must involve embracing uncertainty."

Inspiring words, Allison. Thank you for a thought-transcending comment!

Unknown said...


How does one learn to embrace uncertainty? Thank you.

Allison said...

AJ - I wish I knew. I think it goes along with the notion of letting go of our attachment to expectations. I think we want to have the expectation that B will occur if we first do A. We have to let go of that expectation, do A, and know that whether or not B happens is uncertain - and be okay with that uncertainty. I personally haven't figured out how to do that for myself - although I think it would make me a much happier person if I could.

Thickethouse.wordpress said...

Thank you for posting about this.

I have thought about this often myself, especially recently. I first became more interested in Buddhist thinking after the death of my husband of 35 years, a very loving and wise man, a university professor, who developed Alzheimers. His death was two and a half years ago, and Paul was ill for a long time, more than seven years. The best book which helped me deal with his death was Grieving Mindfully by Sameet Kumar. This lead to a personal practice of mindful meditation and reading and thinking about many of these ideas, which also include the mystery of life/death.

I don't think I can accept reincarnation in the way that it seems to be in popular cultures in many Buddhist countries. (not that this idea seems the same anywhere, even to my limited knowledge.)

While I don't think I have a persistent separate self, I can certainly see that, as Was Once said, all our actions affect all that is. So it is good to try to act with awareness, skillful means, and loving compassion, as much as we are able.

When I was young (shortly after the earth cooled, as a friend says) I loved the Catholic idea of the mystical body of Christ. I felt that if I even tied my shoes as perfectly as possibly with pure motives I could put something good into this mystical body... And now, probably more, I think of this as the Dharma body of Buddha.

I like Alison's idea about embracing uncertainty. I do. I feel part of it. If I could not embrace it, what could I do but suffer more?

It is, to me, the great mystery of reality, of interbeing, manifesting now this way, now that way...I find peace and joy in this way of seeing things.

G said...

Allison - more wise words. Letting go of expectations is related to the Four Noble Truths in that expectations are a form of clinging to desires, and that if we let go of desires/expectations we let go of suffering (the ultimate point of Buddhist practice).

AJ/Allison - How do we let go of expectations (and thereby embrace uncertainty)? By walking the Noble Eightfold Path, the fourth of the Noble Truths.

G said...

Inspiring to read of how you used Buddhism and mindfulness in your life, Kristi, especially with regards the loss of your husband, Paul. I worked with people suffering from Alzheimer's and learned a lot from them about the nature of existence, the mind, and how to live the Way.

As to reincarnation/rebirth, this can be looked at in many ways. One way is to see how mental objects are reborn moment to moment; in this sense, rebirth is more about present practice rather than clinging to a certain doctrine that we may have no direct knowledge of.

Unknown said...

I'm not a Buddhist- I'm just an atheist whose been learning to meditate for a few months now. I wanted to say I'm impressed by the way some buddhists are trying to use science and reason as inspirations rather than something to try and fight against.I think science has done more to reduce real human suffering than any religion, but if Buddhism can incorperate it and move with it I think there is true potential to help a great many people. Not trying to offend anyone's belief of course, just adding a non-buddhist perspective :)

G said...

Thank you Uyulala for your interesting comment. I agree with you that combining science and Buddhism can benefit the world if approached with a humble attitude to openly learn from both. Science has indeed done much to alleviate pain and suffering, although if we accept the Buddhist teachings on suffering (encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths) then Buddhism offers us a way to let go of suffering for good. Nonetheless, science has much to be appreciated - I used to work in a hospital so I know the kind of wondrous things that can (and can't) be done.

Oh, and it's great to have a non-Buddhist voice on the blog - please comment as often as you like!

Unknown said...

Uyala's comment is interesting, and quite a common conclusion. It is valid or not depending upon how you view suffering.

It goes back to the old Buddhist questions, where is happiness, and where is suffering.

If you come up with the right answer, the mind, then obviously material science cannot help you, although it may offer some temporary relief in terms of physical suffering (temporary because we are all going to die anyway).

This then brings us to the psychological side of science, which is not really about the mind known in Buddhism but what science perceives as the mind.

Thus, you have people who accept the modern day perception of what the mind is (primarily due to their culture) and people who don't.

The problem is that if you accept psychological rationality then you still end up with a material view of the mind (meat and chemicals + energy) and death simply means a decomposition or reorganization of these components; i.e. no mind travelling onwards, no samsara, no karmic energy, and not really anything to do with Buddhism).

Unfortunately, we are not aware of other types of transient beings (most of us anyway), other than animals, but if we were then we would realize that modern science only has validity in this realm, and that minds (and bodies) exist without any material components.

Death, like birth, is a painful affair in the human and animal realms, and even if it happens quickly it still leaves suffering in those close to the departed. The other realms have instantaneous birth and death, as any who have practiced jhana will have experienced (and there is also a more subtle birth and death of emotions arising from attachment).

Whatever the realm, death is simply a moving onwards to whatever the karmic energy of the mind comes up with, but it doesn't have to be, that's where Buddhism comes in; and end to birth and death.

Despite what the doctor might say, the cause of death is always birth.

When people come up to my Ajarn and ask him if he can tell their fortune he says "Yes, you are going to die," and then smiles.

Unknown said...

Apologies, I meant to say 'uyulala' not uyala.

G said...

Thanks for the more traditional and doctrinally orthodox Buddhist view of death, Gladstone. The discussion here is better for its inclusion. The quote from 'your Ajarn' is wonderful.

The thing is, whether one believes in some kind of afterlife or rebirth as literally true or not doesn't change the basic fact of suffering in this life. Neither does it change the efficacy of walking the Buddhist Path. If we live the Eightfold Path, there comes a rime when we must let go of all beliefs, including Buddhist ones, and perceive reality as it is right now, and not through the (distorting) lens of views. This is the teaching of 'my Ajarn', Ajahn Sumedho.

As ever, your views are appreciated Gladstone - although we'd all do well not to cling to any of our beliefs too tightly, whether they derive from an ajarn or not.

Unknown said...

It's always good to have views from opposite ends of the spectrum- our natural cognative bias means most people only tend to look at views that comfirm their own beliefs. personally I see no more reason to accept the existance of 'karmic energy' or 'other realms' than pink unicorns ;) although I do agree with Gladstone that ultimatly both happiness and suffering come from the mind.

I'm glad you don't mind me commenting, I've been very much enjoying flicking though your blog- I saw an older post that said you hail from Salisbury originally? I'm in Swindon, not too far up the road :)

Unknown said...

Yes, I think we all start out about the same, we form our opinions from our experiences, stuff we pick up from our local environment and culture, and limit our understanding of reality to those.

Most of us don’t go in for other realms because stuff like that is often beyond what we know to be true and is often believed by people out of superstition more than anything else; besides, some people find it woo woo, spooky.

However, the reality that we end up with is not necessarily the reality that covers all nature, it is just a reality created by the thoughts of a majority of people in a particular location, just as not so long ago the world was flat and the world began on a Monday a few thousand years ago.

In the present day the reality in some places is limited to derivatives, bonuses, shopping, and vacations, but I can assure you that there are other realities. Thus, if you really want to discover new things you have to travel around a little, and maybe then you might bump into a pink unicorn or two.

The Dhammapada says something interesting about people of different opinions, “If a traveler does not meet with one who is his better, or his equal, let him keep to his solitary journey; there is no companionship with a fool.”

G said...

I'm in sympathy with your thoughts on other realms and 'pink unicorns', Uyulala, although purple unicorns are a different matter altogether. ;-)

Yes, Gladstone, science doesn't have all the answers, only a an omnipresent god could - and as Buddhists (or atheists, for that matter), we know what we think about that!

Unknown said...

I'll tell you of one of my first encounters with pink unicorns, although it was not exactly the first one.

It was quite a long time ago, and I was in Singapore staying in a cheap hotel in Bencoolen street. It was around 11.30 pm and I didn't feel like sleeping so I thought I would go for a walk in the cool evening air.

I passed a small street where the street had been blocked off in the middle by large curtains, and from behind the curtains came the noise of Chinese symbols and drums, so I walked down to see what was happening.

The other side of the curtains was lit up like daylight, and a section of the street had been blocked by curtains at both ends. An altar was set up at one end and there were two Chinese mediums at the other end, about 50 feet away.

The tranced mediums hopped on one leg, their left leg, and with their raised right leg they spun a small metal hoop, about 12 inches in diameter, with their foot. In their hands they held Chinese swords, holding them up with both hands, horizontally, in front of their tongues, which they stuck out in front of them.

As they hopped towards the altar they ran the swords across their tongues, cutting them deeply, and then they used pieces of paper to soak up the blood and they eventually placed these upon the altar when they reached there.

I was standing on the edge of the pavement, which was only about 3 feet wide, and I was about 5 feet from the closest of the mediums. The sight was grotesque, there was blood everywhere, and they cut their tongues in several places and in the end they were just hanging on by thin flaps of skin.

When they had placed the blood soaked pieces of paper on the altar they stopped, and then sat down on chairs next to a table set up at the other end.

Then a young Chinese guy came up to me and said, What do you think?" I said that there was nothing to think about, I had seen what I had seen, and it looked terrible.

Then, he took me over to meet the mediums, who by now were both out of their trance, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, and he asked them to stick out their tongues, which they did, and there wasn't even a scratch on them. Yet two minutes earlier their tongues were cut to shreds, hanging on by only the thinnest of skin and there was blood rushing out of them.

I was so close, and it was so bright, and the cuts to their stuck out tongues were real, as was the blood and subsequent damage, and I could also see into their mouths, so there was no trickery involved.

There were about ten people in all at this strange event. No idea what the altar and pieces of paper were for, I never bothered to ask, probably for wishes or something. So, about ten minutes after I first arrived I went back to my hotel. The next day when I walked past the street it was back to normal, with no signs of what had been happening the night before.

G said...

Intriguing tale, Gladstone.

Yes, many (most?) of us have experienced odd things in our lives. Personally, I've seen UFOs, heard laughter where there was nobody to laugh, had premonitory dreams, meditative visions, had my thoughts read, and experienced repeated feelings of deja vu. Once, when I had been intensely practicing deep meditation in a commune, the world seemed to 'bleach out' and became 'transparent.' (This was in broad daylight on a busy street; fortunately I wasn't crossing the road at the time!)

The mind is a complicated set of processes, and it's no surprise that we experience odd events beyond our immediate understanding. (In fact, it's almost miraculous that we don't experience more perceptual discrepancies than most of us do.) That the mind may even be able to alter the material world without physical intervention is also a possibility, although there seems to be no conclusive evidence for this.

As to Buddhism, it may encourage some people in their practice of the Way to believe in unprovable things, but there are many of us who can testify that it isn't necessarily necessary to hold such views to progress along the Buddhist Path. Nevertheless, such experiences are fascinating, and I appreciate your candid recollections, Gladstone.

Unknown said...

Such experiences are a fascinating area of psycology; I've had several experiences when I was younger where I could have sworn blind I'd seen ghostly figures, or felt a ghostly presence, and been left rather shaken at the time. I don't know many people who don't have some sort of 'ghost story' to tell, it's part of being human. I think your reaction to such things depends on if you want to try and take an evidence -based approach to life or one based on faith and intuition. That's why I think blogs like this one are so important (from an outsider's perspective); Buddhism is more likely to have a strong impact on the modern world if people can see that an evidence-based approach is not necessarily incompatible with Buddhist practice- though of course many people will always prefer the more traditional ways of doing things.

G said...

Uyulala, thank you for your kind comments regarding Buddha Space. An evidence-based approach to spiritual awakening is definitely not incompatible with being Buddhist, and presenting such views to the world is one of the main objectives of this blog - it is subtitled "An exploration of modern Buddhism", after all.

As previously indicated, your 'outsider's perspective' is most welcome!

Unknown said...

I think millions of people experience things that cannot be explained in relation to our usual view of reality, and it shows you that things are not necessarily as we would expect them to be.

Such a situation also points to the broader nature of existence, which my teacher likes to refer to as all knowledge, or how everything works.

He says that human beings tend to think that every development is due to their own initiative, whereas in reality left to their own devices they would not get much further than picking their noses, scratching their backsides, and fighting over something they want.

The basic rule of this broader nature is that elements go together, i.e. dogs go with dogs, cows with cows, etc. except that with human beings it means the elementary nature of the mind. Thus, if you act in a demonic way you are most likely to have friends of a similar ilk and be contacted by demons; act in a saintly way and you are most likely to be befriended and contacted by beings of a similar mind.

He says that when people do see other beings it is always a result of contact, not just an off chance occurrence. The interesting part is that these beings are then usually seen in human form, even though they are obviously not human. The reason for this being that upon contact they are affected by human feeling, or the human mold. Thus, for about five seconds after contact is disengaged they can often be seen in some ghostly human form before it wears off and they vanish (no such thing as ghosts, i.e. a mind without a body, all minds have bodies).

The obvious reason why such knowledge is generally not talked about or written about is because it happens to run parallel with superstitious belief, and it tends to be spooky. However, learning from relatively pureminded contacts and using their heightened awareness is a legitimate method of learning in Buddhism, so I am told, although it is not generally known by ordinary members of the public.

G said...

I've met a few weird looking beings in my time, Gladstone - not least the one in the mirror!

Start losing weight said...

Hello well i prefer Buddhism over the science strictly for the faith .

G said...

Strictly speaking, thanks for the comment. Hope you lose weight, soon!

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