Do you feel that death is curtains, or that there is life after death? When it comes to rebirth, or life continuing after the death of this body, it seems very well worth keeping an open mind, for what is there to lose?
An old friend of mine in his late fifties is approaching death from stage 4 cancer, and on a long walk looking out over a panoramic coastline recently he told me that he wants to know for sure that death is not the end. He believes that very much sometimes, but other times doubts intrude and he wonders if consciousness is just a by-product of chemicals, like he was taught in school and so many people assume. “I still can’t really wrap my head around death and all we are taught. I wish I could be secure in knowing that we go on in some way that is better and more helpful but most of the time it is just “lights out” no matter what, because we won’t remember this life anyway, you know, like the “waking from a dream” analogy. I am tired of worrying about it even though Geshe Kelsang always says not to.”
My friend LOVES life. He is full of life. He does not want to die – he dug his heels into the sand when we were having our picnic and waved his fists in a mocked childish tantrum: “I don’t want to leave!!! Don’t make me!!!!” He wrote me in an email: “Sigh. I am tired of death. I wish I could wrap my head around it but it is so elusive.” His love of life and other people is infectious. The thoughts I shared with him are that, whatever happens, his deep gratitude and love for others are going to stand him in good stead, and that as far as I’m concerned he’ll always have people around him to love, it is his nature, even if they are not the same people whom he is so concerned about leaving in the lurch now. This article is really for him and others in “two minds.”
Do you believe in life after death?
Chances are you already do have an at least occasional sneaking suspicion that there is something that continues after our body has perished – varying statistics overall show that a high percentage of people do believe this. Many friends who don’t ostensibly believe in rebirth have still asked me to pray for a loved one when they die, so what is that about? Overall, as reported by Greeley and Hout, the proportion of Americans who believe in life after death rose from 77 percent in 1973 to 82 percent in 1998. Many people believe in heaven and hell, and what are those if not a future life? Buddhists believe that we can take rebirth in heavenly or hellish realms, but that even that is not the end. These rebirths are as impermanent as this one and, like a bird leaving one nest to fly to another, we will die from there and take rebirth again. We will continue to take uncontrolled rebirth and die again until we have destroyed its causes, which are ignorance and contaminated karma, which together project one hallucinatory episode of life after another.
More things in heaven and earth…
There is one Shakespearean quote that I’ve always loved:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
How can we explain away the many and diverse cultures’ belief in future lives, and the vivid imaginings, dreams and waking experiences that people the world over have shared of certain things that we cannot find in this human world — the existence of spirits or ghosts for instance? Just because we cannot see our future lives now, or remember our past lives, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I don’t know about you, but I cannot even remember being born, though I am pretty sure I was. My memory of my entire childhood is sketchy for that matter. Like Horatio, we’d be well advised to keep an open mind, accepting that, however rational we may think we are, we are simply not in a position to see absolutely everything that exists.
I also love Voltaire’s words on the subject:
“It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.”
Being born once is no less weird than being born lots of times. Dying once is no less weird than dying lots of times.
Body and mind
Something whose nature is empty like space, always lacking form, shape and color, and whose function is to perceive or understand objects. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 6
Our body has a limited shelf life. Our mind, a formless continnuum of awareness, is beginningless and endless. Do the math.
My teacher says:
Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that after our death, although our body will cease, the mind will not. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 6
From one point of view, we can say that we seem to take one rebirth after another – from another point of view, each life is just a new dream arising from our root mind, each body just an imputation, projection, or even thought (albeit relatively persistent) of that mind. The body does not have any power to create anything by itself. It is of a different order or dimension altogether to the mind, and nowhere near as important. More on this and Buddha’s other reasons for rebirth here.
Please leave all your comments, experiences, questions, objections, etc on this article to help with further market research; there is so much to discuss and share on this subject.