Buddhism and Death

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Ludwig Van Beethoven, (1770-1827), the greatest German composer of the classical music, wrote his 5th symphony on ‘Death’. This famous piece starts with 4 beats which are the knocking of ‘Death’ on our doors. ‘Death’ has been the subject of discussion among many great minds, all the way from prophets to philosophers, for thousands of years. Perhaps ever since man buried his dead, he had a belief, hope, wish, desire in the afterlife so that he could see his loved ones again. In the Axial age (centuries between 200 B.C and 800 B.C, roughly 600 years) people were always reminded by those great sages, highly self-realized, and revealed personalities that though we are in this world we are not of this world. This consensus among them and their teachings led the community of mankind to believe that we are here in this world only temporarily. In other word, this is not our final home. This is but a bridge to the next world. However, this bridge is not a horizontal passage way. It is rather a vertical one. It is more like the Jacob’s ladder which appeared in Jacob’s dream mentioned in the Old Testament. We are standing on this moving, changing, and becoming world while at the same time we are trying very hard to ascend to the world of ‘Being’ which is immutable and unchanging. We are, in other words, stuck between the world of change and the world of becoming. Our roots like trees are deep in the ground and our heads towards the Heaven. Human beings of even different cultures were encouraged to live in the moment for the past is gone and the future has not yet materialized. They were warned that ‘Truth’ is here and now and to become one with it and be drawn by it they needed to die before they die biologically unto their five senses by pulling the plug on them. They were to detach themselves from their changing world including their own selves which were also constantly becoming at every moment. They were taught to free themselves from the bondage of the walls of the self. For Socrates, the father of the Western intellectual tradition, philosophy (the love of wisdom) was nothing but the practice of Death. Natural death, which will be experienced by all of us some day, would not automatically open the door to our salvation. People lived with death and were beings on to death. Soldiers were told not to be afraid of death because they were already dead on to their senses. Plato, the student of Socrates, trained and disciplined his own students in his academy to win the battle within themselves before they were ready to become great leaders like Marcus Aurelius (A.D 121-180), the Roman Emperor who was also a Stoic philosopher. Stoicism was the official philosophy of the Roman Empire which held that “Since death and adversity are out of control, and come to everyone, we should meet them with dignified acceptance.”( B. Magee, ‘The story of philosophy’, p. 46). During this Axial age and even till centuries ago there was no Berlin Wall (separating the two Germanys during the cold war) between this world and the other. There existed certain amount of transparency and communication between the living and the dead through dreams and visions for instance. Some prophets actually had one on one confrontation with people who visited them and were also witnessed by those around them. God or an Angel came to Jacob in the wilderness at night and both got into wrestling and fighting. Jacob continued this struggle and did not let go till he received from him his blessing at dawn though he was wounded in the process. Having gone through this tug of war, he was renamed as ‘Israel’ which means the man who wrestled with God. An unknown old man once walked to the prophet of Islam without asking where he was and asked him a few questions and then he left. The prophet’s followers asked him as to whom he was. He was Angel Gabriel, he said. Is it possible that others also had if not the same but similar experience without their knowledge? People had direct communication with their loved ones who had departed from this world and yet were still present to help their loved ones here with their wisdom and advices. Perhaps this was the foundation of ancestor worshipping in the past. Shangdi, for example, was the highest ancestor in Shang dynasty in China more than 3000 years ago.

One of the greatest contributions of the Indian religions, that is, Hinduism and Buddhism, however, was their specific philosophies of after life, namely, ‘Reincarnation’ (the former) and ‘Rebirth’ (the latter). In Chinese Religions there was no idea of afterlife. Confucius (c.551-479) was once asked: “Is there life after death”? He answered it with another question: “Do you know what life is”? The answer was: “No”. Taoists also did not have a philosophy of afterlife. No wonder why Buddhism, if not in the beginning, became popular in China given the fact that there was no belief in a personal God in either Confucianism or Taoism. Buddha’s teaching on ‘Death’ was very similar to the Stoic’s philosophy. Buddha always reminded his followers that ‘Death’ is a natural phenomenon and thus should be accepted. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, (John 11: 1). But Buddha did not appeal to such a miracle. He taught that we should always be ready for that very moment which is unpredictable. Buddha like many great thinker of the past asked us to practice dying before the actual biological death. When you love someone, you sacrifice your desires for that very person. This love could be one towards our parents, brothers and sisters, friends, wives, etc. This act of sacrifice is in some sense nothing but an act of dying. Love and death, in other words, go together. A Latin expression says: “Death is Love”. When Buddha teaches us to detach ourselves from our desires, he is basically asking us to sacrifice them in order to rid ourselves from suffering. This is perhaps what is meant by dying before the natural death. Lazarus also died before he actually died. If you die before its time, you can also become resurrected like Lazarus by Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and after three days he was also resurrected. If we take these incidents literally, then we get what we have asked for. However, if we try to dig a little deeper into the real meanings of what we read, then perhaps their true colors and messages can be seen once the mud settles. Being reached by the enlightenment itself is dying to one’s attachment to the world of change and becoming. If I detach myself from the self of mine which is constantly changing, according to Buddha, then I am free. This freedom and happiness does not have to wait for the natural death. It can be achieved here and now. Once we experience this early death, then I am ready when the natural one knocks on my door four times.