The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, October 6, 2018
Spirituality ... Zen ...

My Zen sangha meets every Sunday morning for Zazen, and we usually chant the Heart Sutra at the end of our sitting. One famous line from the Sutra goes as follows:

No Old Age and Death,
And No End to Old Age and Death

Whatever that means. Still, I am now in my “old age”, and death has taken on a personal meaning in my life, for obvious reasons — i.e., if I’m lucky, I have left maybe 1/3 of time that has already passed since I graduated from college. It goes quick! You can tell that I’ve led a fairly sheltered life, that I was never in the military, am not a medical professional, and am not a homicide detective, all of whom become very familiar with death at a much earlier age.

However, I did work for a law enforcement agency that has a homicide unit, and I always respected the people that work in it. There is a recent article in the local newspaper about a former homicide detective and supervisor from our agency who recently retired, who now looks back on the estimated 1,000 dead bodies that he came across in his years on the streets. Worth a read — this is a guy who had no time for stuff like Zen and the Heart Sutra, but could now perhaps use a bit of it. (I actually knew this fellow a little, he was very well respected; like most people in law enforcement, he’s a lot more real than most of the “snowflakey” types in my sangha, myself included!)

But OK, back to to the navel-gazing into my own approaching mortality. At this age, a person needs to come to grips with death — no more ignoring it (although I suppose that you can, if you’re really healthy and have a lot going in your life — both of which categories I don’t fit into anymore). So how to feel about it? I suppose that depends to a large degree on how you feel about life, about being alive, and about being alive with other people. If you like being alive, if you’ve enjoyed the experience of living a conscious, sentient life, if you’ve generally enjoyed relating to other people (despite the occasional negative human interactions and experiences that are unavoidable in any social context), then perhaps you feel sad thinking that your life and your friendships and loving relationships will be over all too soon.

In that case, you may take another look at the claims of religion that promise or at least hint at a personal transcendence of death, the survival of the self in all its glory into some form of “life after death” (there are also certain small schools of western philosophical thought that take the notion of afterlife seriously, e.g. the handful of process philosophers who propose “subjective immortality”; there are also some eastern philosophies in that vein).

Now, the notion of an eternal after-life is kind of scary when you think about it — what would you do with all that time? Would things eventually get boring once you’ve experienced everything, met everyone, seen every corner of the universe? Not to mention that the universe itself is slated to become a pretty boring place within a few gogool years (a number with 100 zeros or more), once all the stars go out, every black hole vanishes, and all that remains is a thin, dark, widely spread dust. Remember the children’s novel Tuck Everlasting, a story with a moral about immortality — that it wouldn’t be as much fun as you might think. And yet, if you’ve enjoyed being alive, you might want to take the risk if given the chance! Hey, you’d have a long time to come up with a solution as to how to stay busy.

But if your life hasn’t been so good, then maybe you feel better by embracing doubt about the afterlife. There is plenty of afterlife doubt around. A large contingent of modern scientists embrace a form of empirical positivism that contends that because immortality can’t be scientifically proven, it doesn’t exist. And the majority of western philosophers and philosophical schools are also pretty rough on the afterlife. And as to the eastern schools of thinking and religious practice — there’s not a whole lot of sympathy for the notion that the “self” that we developed in our time here on earth has any currency in the great beyond. Modern strains of “western Buddhism”, including the my own local Zen sangha members, generally mix two parts ancient east with equal parts of western science, psychology and philosophy, and get a cocktail that leaves you with no hope of any presence beyond the grave (but plenty of consolations and reasons to accept and embrace our fleeting nature).

In a recent talk by the teacher at my Zen group, he spoke about the problem of “hating myself”, as if it is a common problem amidst his followers; and so he offered some soothing words on loving yourself and such (despite my great respect, I personally don’t consider him any more important a “teacher” than anyone else — as an eternal student, I try to learn from everyone!). But in several other talks, recent and going back many years, this teacher has strongly espoused the Buddhist line that self doesn’t matter, it’s not real, it’s an illusion, it’s just not important. Well, I see a pattern – Buddhists (especially western Buddhists) often don’t like themselves, and want to teach others to also lose their self-regard, as an allegedly necessary step on the path to true enlightened wisdom. But really, it’s a necessary step in the “misery loves company” process.

Personally, I can’t relate to most of this. I have always liked myself. It seems absurd not to. Sure, too much self-love can be bad; there are too many narcissistic persons who put their own self above everyone else (including the narcissist currently in the White House). But just enough self-love makes you hope for an after-life, and most schools of thought that offer afterlife-hope emphasize the necessity of NOT putting everyone else above self, of living a moral and caring life.

I couldn’t find any studies on the self-esteem of modern Buddhists relative to other groups, such as the general population or to practicing Christians, so right now my theory is just that, a notion based mostly on conjecture. However, it seems to fit what I observe at my own Zen sangha; and you can find a variety of web pages where Buddhists address the problem of self-dislike. Here’s a quote from one such site —

There were times years ago when it was simply painful to sit with myself in meditation because I disliked myself so strongly. And that self-hatred would also spill out into my relations with others . . .

A friend from the sangha gave me a book by Jennifer Micheal Hecht entitled “Doubt, A History“. This book appears to me to be something of a credo and do-it-yourself manual on how to be an atheist and a denier of the afterlife. I guess that my friend was trying to help me get free of the anxiety that I sometimes experience from holding out hope for a loving deity and a meaningful afterlife. I haven’t read the book cover to cover, but after getting through the first few chapters and random sampling the remainder, I believe that I get the picture.

(As to my Zen friend — he is in many ways a better man than I am. He raised two children and is now a devoted grandfather. I never had kids. He says that he does not hate himself and enjoys life; he certainly does enjoy the open road from the perspective of his motorcycle! So he does not fit into my theory of self-hating Buddhists. But IMHO, he’s the exception that helps prove the rule!).

So, the index to Ms. Hecht’s book includes 21 cites regarding “death and no afterlife”. I perused many of these cites, and some of them indeed seem to reflect varying degrees of self-disregard. E.g., a quote from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius about mortality includes these lines:

Soon will the earth cover us all; then the earth, too, will change . . . if a man reflects on the changes and transformations which follow one another like wave after wave and their rapidity, he will despise everything which is perishable.

Aurelius does not offer much hope that anything about ourselves is imperishable. He doesn’t exactly offer a positive attitude about life and death in this world.

Zoom forward to the 19th and 20th Centuries, and Hecht includes the ponderings on immortality by the genius inventor Thomas Edison. His position was that

all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong . . . I do not dread it though. Personally I cannot see any use of a future life.

No use for an afterlife? That seems terribly unimaginative for such an inventive genius. Was Edison a miserable bastard in person? Well, he certainly did have a dark side — which came out in his corporate battles with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla in “the war of the currents” regarding which form of electrical transmission (Alternating Current vs. Direct Current) was the better technology for home distribution. It was pretty clear early on that Tesla’s AC held many advantages and was safer, but Edison used his fortunes to smear the AC people in an attempt to preserve his personal investment in DC technology. Obviously, technology and practicality won out and Edison lost the “current war” on the home front (DC still had many other industrial applications and is used for long-distance high-voltage transmission lines).

Oh, and what did Tesla think about the afterlife? About the same as Edison — Tesla said

what we call ‘soul’ or ‘spirit,’ is nothing more than the sum of the functionings of the body. When this functioning ceases, the ‘soul’ or the ‘spirit’ ceases likewise.

Tesla was supposedly a more likeable guy than Edison, and was a humanist and vegetarian to boot. As with my Zen friend, Tesla puts afterlife-deniers in a better light. But then there was the 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur, who did not have a lot of encouraging things to say about human life and the world around us. According to the perennially pessimistic Schopenhaur, “Death is a sleep in which the individual is forgotten: everything else wakes up again, or rather has never slept. ”

Hecht also cites V.I. Lenin and his own negative views on the afterlife. Lenin committed himself to “dispersing the fog of religion and liberating the workers from their faith in an afterlife, by rallying them to the present-day struggle for a better life here upon earth”. OK, so how did that turn out?

My local Buddhist friends are veering further and further to the left these days, but I doubt if they are going Bolshevik anytime soon. Nevertheless, their own problems with themselves gives me cause for doubt regarding their own doubt about the self and its journey beyond death. Not that a double negative proves a positive !!! I still admit my own ultimate uncertainty on the questions of God and human afterlife. But I don’t feel that my Buddhist friends have made a strong case against my continuing and tentative hope that our life-journeys can avoid a “dead end” once our last breathes are exhausted.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:15 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again some random tho’ts on your general topic here.

    I might say that there’s another way of looking at your place in life at this point: You could think that you still have another possibility of 15 years or more; and that is a good “chunk” of time on this earth. Why not take a positive attitude toward it and enjoy the coming years that you still have good health and energy to do many things you might have wanted to do in life but did not get around to yet. Deal with the concept of dying in the future.

    I do think that one thing we often lose sight of is what is mentioned in the article about the homicide detective you refer to: It’s only too possible that one minute we can be here and the next minute gone! It does seem a mystery to me why some people die at some ridiculously early age and others live well into their 80s and 90s.

    I think it is a wonderful thing that you have “always liked” yourself! That is a really appropriate and good approach to life here. And I think a good basis for living some nice period of time here on this earth.

    I have found myself wondering if we ourselves (before we even start this life on earth), as part of our decision to return to this earth for another “go round” do not also choose the “when” of our death. Our entire life may have a plan that we simply are unaware of. (Then again, that may not be the case. I just wonder about that possibility.)

    I do know that when I was in my 60s I too went thru a period when I anticipated an early death. I also think there may be a good point to our consideration of death. It may prepare us for living a positive and useful life that may be the last “chunk” of life we may find more productive “earth-wise” than the part of life that actually leads up to death.

    However, I then find myself wondering about all those who die young and suddenly—small children, young teenagers, those in the really productive part of their lives: Did they need, and not have, a plan for an early death? What about people who die in large groups, as in the thousands who recently died in the earthquake/tsunami recently in Indonesia, I think it was. (Then there also was Puerto Rico and the hurricane.) I find myself wondering what the connection among all these people is that they all die together, almost at the same exact time—as in earth time not afterlife “time”. Do they have some “connection” among themselves?

    No answers to these questions; nobody here to ask who can give an answer.

    I find myself wondering if at some point after death we do not spend a period where we “evaluate” how we did in this life. How will we feel if we have used this life “unproductively”? Might that be what “purgatory” or even “hell” might be for those who wasted their time. Or might we see it as a learning period.

    We tend to think these days of finding or getting the scientific/provable answer to our questions in our period on earth at this time. So when we cannot get an answer to what our afterlife might be, we tend to say then it cannot be. I find myself wondering what Stephen Hawking thinks about the afterlife: Has he changed his mind about it? Or is he simply not in existence anymore? Unending questions about what comes after death. And then it will be upon us and a great adventure will begin; so it seems to me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 7, 2018 @ 10:19 am

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