A colleague of mine sent me a psychological study today that compares the beliefs of monastic and lay Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Atheists around existential fear and generosity. ‘Astonishingly’, the article says, the monastic Buddhists evidenced the most fear of death, and also the least generosity in a thought experiment that offered them six months more life or a stranger far longer. From the contemplative perspective, is this in fact such a surprise? I’ve reflected on my own beliefs and experiences around death.
Why was this study ‘astonishing’? The implication is that Buddhists’ professed ‘beliefs in the lack of an essential self’ should mean that they are not afraid of death. After all, what never truly existed can’t die, surely? To start with the scriptural, debatable level and then to move into contemplative practice as direct experience: there are such a wide range of interpretations of the anatta doctrine, depending on the sect and on the individual practitioner. The Buddha himself didn’t fight about the self in the Pali Canon. He refused to answer about whether there definitely was one or not, saying that any answer he gave would be bound to confuse and mislead, implying some sort of non-dual reality on the one side, but also maybe that he had incomplete information or could make no metaphysical claims on the other. This is complicated by the different interpretations of rebirth of different sects that on the one hand boil down to little more than atheistic cause and effect, and on the other pretty much imply something close enough to a soul to not matter to the layman. If you’re going to take the Buddha’s teaching as gospel, then it would therefore make sense that the more advanced the practitioner, the more they see the truth of things directly, and so indeed they would fear the end less. This is what the article states, and I suspect it was written by a meditator who believes in perfect enlightenment themselves; it suggests another study be performed with very advanced meditators, in other words, enlightened people. I’m not wading into that one.
The interesting and unpalatable truth might be that, if we take all of this as hard and generalizable evidence, that even many monastics are not necessarily ‘that enlightened’; that they have begun the process of insight, have the time to really plow into it, and this is proving pretty bloody scary, as they lose their false certainties but have nothing unconditional to replace them with quite yet. Not-self is not a very consolatory doctrine, after all: if you believe that you do not go on after death in any meaningful way, but lack the experiential insight that shows you why this is not a problem, then that is a murky middle that is very scary. I have experienced this often and continue to experience it often: the cycles of mourning, anxiety, inner searching and desperate externalization. From a sheer ‘belief without proof’ perspective, the comforting belief in an eternal soul aside (and I don’t think it is patronizing to say that it is comforting, because I think it is a comforting belief), it seems saner to be a humanist, who says: I know I am going to die, and I am trying to accept that. Instead, I will try to do good so that the world as a whole is made better by me having existed in it, and someone who is very much like me will benefit from that and perhaps be grateful for that.
I have said that I feel that there is an order to the universe, which is to say that I do believe in karma these days. Not just the basic cause and effect karma of making another person smile: but of the huge, unmappable cosmic ripples of all good actions. I have a sense of good as being something inherent, untarnishable and somehow more real than the banal evils of the everyday, and this leads me to see the world as beautiful. But- this does not mean that I see the world we live in now as without misery, imperfection and frustratingly unnecessary suffering, due to our own actions and the simple physics of change. Because ‘belief’ is a slippery word: do we get to choose our beliefs? If we convert to Buddhism, do we put on the mantle of all of its beliefs? Is belief something we can control? Can I choose to believe the optimistic option when there are two opposing viewpoints and one is more fatalistic? Do we claim to believe the nice things while in fact fearing the opposite?
What I am sure of is that my beliefs are a mixture of genuine insight and heaped delusion. Some of my beliefs are so self-evident to me now that I am happy to argue them down to the hilt, and the big one is of radical impermanence. I’ve never seen anything stay the same. This leads me to extrapolate there there is no permanent heaven and hell, and no permanent self. Any pretense at cautious scepticism is a lie. But my belief in karma leads me to feel that what I think, feel and do have ramifications that are not simply the results of atoms interacting. There is something deeper at play here that is not just an overlaid sense of meaning on a materialistic world. And so, for me, death has to be final, but it doesn’t have to be meaningless, and so it does not have to be endlessly terrifying. There is something which is benefiting from whatever actions I perform are done with good will and skill: on the small scale, that’s other beings. In the bigger picture, that’s everything. From the contemplative perspective, what is benefiting is a mystery. But that doesn’t have to be another direct incarnation of me, as if I am worthy of eternality, or even basically God as Unity. Such a thought is, really, rather self obsessed. When the universe is done with me, it will end me; such is the natural cycle of things, freeing up psychic space in the world for the next thing, which will be a culmination of many different karmas.
For me, this bitter pill – that the world is essentially good, but not currently nice to my limited perspective – is hard to take, and I find myself not wanting to go above and beyond to help others. There is a desire to withdraw from the egotistical wish to be a saint and to do some healing of my sad lil’ self. It doesn’t seem selfish. It seems the correct current step that I am finally able to see as necessary. If death will be final, then my own project needs to be completed for my life to be satisfying, and then it will have no sting.