Death, Dying and Reincarnation
Pascal once said, ‘Death, when one does not think about it, is more bearable than the thought of death when one is not in danger.’ People generally believe in trying to find out whether life has meaning, and then they try to determine what sort of meaning this should be. For some people the meaning of life is predetermined, as a gift from God, for example. For them, the meaning of life is something that has to be discovered rather than created. Other people feel that the meaning of life is in the hands of the individual.
Meaning is something that we create on our own, and life only has the meaning that we give to it. Buddhists, on the other hand, say that to make life meaningful we should try to become more aware, more conscious. For if we can become more focused and attentive, we can gradually move towards becoming more enlightened as well.
In the same way that people have contemplated upon the meaning of life, they have also considered the meaning of death. We could say that thinking about death and after-death experiences (or after-death existence) is as important as reflecting on the meaning of life. As we know, all the major religions of the world have tried to address the question, ‘Is there life after death, and if so, what sort of life would that be?”
Some secular Western scholars have gone as far as to say that the origin of religion is the fear of death itself. It is this fear that has given rise to religion. The sense of mortality and the inevitability of death have given rise to an enormous sense of insecurity, and driven human beings to speculate about life after death. This may or may not be true; the important point is that all the major religions have had to deal with this particular issue. None have been able to ignore the importance of it.
Some people also feel that religions have speculated about the existence of life after death — in terms of heaven and hell — and have spoken about the immortality of the soul and its survival after death, because this invariably gives some kind of comfort to people. However, they argue that this comfort is, in a sense, delusory. Thinking that we will live forever, or that we will have eternal life, just makes this life a little bit more bearable. We imagine that all the disadvantages that we have in this particular life will be compensated for in the next life, which is eternal. These people argue that all this speculation about life after death is simply designed to help people deal with their fear of extinction.
Obviously however, that is not the case. In fact, religious speculation about life after death is just as likely to increase our fear of death and the afterlife, than to decrease it. Religious speculation can make people feel paranoid about going to hell, especially when we consider the images of roasting in hell and eternal damnation that are prevalent in some religious ideas. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, has argued that if people did not have religion and the religious belief in life after death, then there would be no fear of death. He felt that all the fears associated with death originate from within our educational and religious backgrounds and is rather skeptical of the priests and the churches for their financial investment in these beliefs. He says,
What Hume is basically saying is that if we did not have religion, and ceased to think about an afterlife, hell and damnation, we would cease to have any kind of fear of death as well. This fear is simply something we have learned through our educational processes and our religious institutions; it is not something that is innate, something that we are born with.
Again, this idea is problematic. Simply ceasing to think about the afterlife or the possibility of roasting in hell does not actually diminish the fear of death. People can also fear death because they associate death with extinction. We may fear death because we fear that our life may be prematurely ended. We have all these plans and projects in mind, and the possibility that we may die at any moment, without any warning, means that we would have to leave all our family, loved ones, and friends behind. All the things that we have done in life — in terms of establishing a career and work — will end up being nothing. Thinking like this could also create an enormous amount of fear. So obviously, saying that to stop thinking about hell will end our fear of death is to ignore the real issue. Fear of death arises precisely because of the fact that we die. It is not simply the result of certain religious ideas about what happens after death.
In addition to the fear of death, is the fear of dying.
People not only fear death itself, but also the process of dying. We are
aware that there is no way of actually knowing in advance what kind of
death we will have. We may die slowly, we may die painfully, and we may
be afflicted with all kinds of disease. That is also an enormous cause
of concern and trepidation. We anticipate all kinds of physical and mental
afflictions that may occur at the time of death. Physically, we may experience
enormous pain and suffering. Mentally also, we may endure enormous pain;
through loneliness, lack of family support, and abandonment by our friends
— for if one dies slowly people may gradually stop coming around to give
support and encouragement. People have a fear of loneliness and of being
abandoned during the death process itself, which is quite apart from having
to deal with the fear of death itself.
In the West, during the last century or so, death has been becoming more institutionalized. People are no longer able to have the immediate experience of death that they used to have in the past. Death is no longer a communal affair because people no longer die at home, they do not usually have a lot of relatives around. The reality of death is hidden away from the public, with the result that there is less real contact with death and dying. On the other hand, the literature on death and dying has been increasing. People are talking more and more about death, but actually handling death less and less.
That is the irony of the whole situation. Ray Anderson, a Christian theologian, has spoken about this in his book Theology, Death and Dying, where he says, ‘There is a fundamental ambivalence about death for the contemporary person. Death has been pushed out of sight and out of the context of daily life. No longer is death itself a meaningful ritual of family and social life yet there is emergence of a quite specific awareness of death as an existential concern. Strangely enough, awareness of death in the form of psychological effects of death as a condition of life is given in adverse proportion to the silence concerning death itself. Where death was once the unspoken word that accompanied communion with and commitment to the dead as a commitment of public and community life, there was virtually no literature on death and dying.’
In contemporary western society, it is quite the opposite. For example, one author on the subject states that he has reviewed over 800 books on death and dying and collected more than 2000 articles on the subject in his files. So people are talking about death and dying more, but they have far less experience of death in terms of actually handling people who are dying or actually witnessing death. Of course, people have a lot of experience of simulated death on television, but as a rule, they do not have much immediate contact with death compared to people living in third world countries, or in the past.
For all these reasons — the ever-present fear of death and the lack of contact with death and dying — it is important, from a Buddhist point of view, to have a proper encounter with death. It is also particularly important to deal with the fear of death, because from a Buddhist point of view coming to terms with death is part of making our life worthwhile and meaningful. Death and life are therefore not completely separate, or oppositional. Rather, death and life give rise to each other; they co-exist in a sort of complimentary fashion. From a Buddhist perspective, the aim is not to conquer death, but to accept death and to familiarize ourselves with our sense of mortality and impermanence.