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!