What is Life? A Perspective.
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Confucius was once asked: What is after death or what is life after death? He answered by asking the question: Do you know what life is? The seeker responded: Not really. To which the Confucius replied, find out what life is first, and then worry about life after death. The question you should ask first is, what is death? The seeker then asked: What is death Confucius? Confucius replied: Well, I have no clue. The puzzled seeker asked: What? Confucius explained: I have not yet experienced death. Perhaps I will let you know after I have done so. But, how could you?, the seeker inquired. You never know, responded Confucius. One day you might be able to contact me. Remember, shamans have could be in touch with our ancestors for thousands of years. So maybe one day you’ll be one of them, and then you can reach me. But Confucius, the seeker responded, that is too farfetched. Son, Confucius advised, don’t forget that there is no gain without some pain. As you can see, we’re back to my first question. Seeing this was true the seeker replied: You’re right Confucius. Having conveyed his message Confucius replied to the seeker: Now you know why I don’t waste time contemplating about the afterlife.
Nevertheless, if you’re really interested in what happens after death, perhaps you want to learn what the Hindus and the Buddhists think about this issue. They believe in incarnation (Hinduism) and rebirth (Buddhism). Remember, even our friend Socrates, who comes later in history, didn’t know anything concerning after life. When he was asked as to the meaning of philosophy, he just responded by saying that it is the practice of death. According to him philosophers die throughout their lives. By that he didn’t mean a biological death. A thinker, to him, is in constant process of pursuing the truth. He is restlessly searching for the truth. He doesn’t possess the truth, like a religious believer. A philosopher moves as a river and realizes that at every moment he is experiencing life and death, being and non-being. Becoming is not being. It consists of beings and non-beings. Even though he has an eye on the moon or the sun, he travels through their reflections in the river. That is why he lives an authentic existence. He cannot be locked up in the past, nor in the future. Symbolically, he is the son of his time. Knowing that being cannot come from non-being, being illogical, he accepts the fact that in the final analysis there is no river. He transcends life and death and practices silence, which can’t be divided. He becomes detached from his or her five senses. He would search for a non-dualistic Reality. He desires to leave the many for the One. My son, we’re philosophers who look for the meaning of life as if life has one. We’re composers, who write the music of life. We write the poetry of being. We ask the Heavens: “Where were we before we entered this world?” Where have I come from? What was the reason of my coming? Where am I going? Where will be my final home? What is the purpose of my being here? We didn’t ask to be here. Then why are we in this world? Why are we punished for what the gods had decided to be right or wrong? What is right and wrong anyway? Are things right or wrong in and of themselves or they are what the gods say they’re? Are they inherently right or wrong or they’re just arbitrarily so?
Son, there’re many unanswered questions. Sometimes divination can help us to find the answers to our questions.
Why are we hear master? What is being? What is life? What is existence? If there is a heaven or God, where did they come from? Why do we have to be scared to even ask such a question?
We live in this world in which people constantly judge each other. We get sick on a regular basis. We live with constant anxiety because we worry so much about the future. We’re fighting the battles of the past on a regular basis. We’re pressed between these two realities from which we seem to have no hope of freeing ourselves. Confucius, I meditate and try to anchor in the harbor of my true Self, if there is any. I dive into the silence of my center in order to find peace and tranquility. I want my freedom from the bondages of the world of becoming and change. I want to be free from blame and praise. I don’t want to see myself from other people’s views because I can get lost in the many. How many can I be? On top of that, I have to deal with my own opinion of myself. Others don’t let me be who I’m.
Be strong my son because as hard as life may sound, it is still worth living. Don’t give up on life. Don’t think only of yourself. Whatever you do, will have its effects on other people around you. Remember, we don’t live for ourselves. Life may be absurd, but we don’t have to contemplate suicide. Socrates, I never even thought of such a thing. I’m not a quitter. I want to know what life is.
Do you drink to forget your problems? Not really? How about drug? I use them for my health and that is about it. Of course, I’m not talking of medication here. I’m, however, concerned about intoxicating substances. No Socrates, I’m very much aware of them. They haven’t proven to me to be useful in solving my philosophical and psychological problems. My problem is not psychological, although there is a fine line between ethics, for example, and psychological state. My predicament is the fear of the future and the past. The former gives me anxiety and the latter makes me feel the death of the opportunities I missed.
Mr. Lao Tzu, are the values relative in the natural law? Yes son, I believe they’re. What do you mean by that? You have been asking Confucius and Socrates for the meaning of life as if life has a meaning. Perhaps it does. But what is it? Why being rather than non-being? What if life is death? What if life is only a dream? I mentioned before or I think I did, that the past could be a source of either happy moment or sad one. What do you mean by this, son? Things I wish wouldn’t have happened or things that I’m happy they turned out to be the way they did. I cannot say the same things about the future. I hope they will be what I have wished for. But there is no guarantee that they will. Is this life?
Forget about the past and the future for now. Things happen to us that are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Look at what we do to ourselves and others. We keep blaming ourselves as well as being criticized by others for things we have not even done. We look at ourselves from the points of views of other people. So if I’m observed by hundred individuals, I’m 100 Persons. Once they’re gone, I keep seeing myself from my opinion of myself. How can I get rid of all these ideas of who I’m? Just imagine how hard it is to purge myself of all these opinions of myself. How can I be happy with such a suffering? These others could include even the members of my own family. Then you realize you’re alone in the universe. Some praise you because you did something for them. Some have daggers for you, because they have accused you falsely. I have learned from you master that moral values are relative. Right and wrong, good and evil are all relative terms. This doesn’t tell me what life is. However, it makes me think how to go through life with a sense of balance and tranquility.
We’re not in control of what happens to us in our lives. We’re told what happens to us have the values of only 10%. The way we react to it, however, is worth 90%. If we get angry and upset, it is not because of the former. But it is due to the way we respond to the latter. We, in reality, are angry with ourselves for the way we reacted to that 10%.
You, nonetheless, teach us not to get too excited when a tragedy hits us because what has occurred is not in and of itself evil. Evil, is like a hole in my shirt, as one teacher once said. It has no substantiality what so ever. Who did it to me? Does it matter? When I’m shot with an arrow, I cry for justice. Subsequently I look for the one who hurt me. I want to get even with that person or the individuals who caused me harm. Buddha believed we ought to worry about taking the arrow out right away. We have to stop the suffering first. Healing has priority over anything else. Whether what happened to me was by an individual or a group of people or things I didn’t have any control of, they all fall under the categories of 10%. Let us say, I had a car accident. Whether it was my fault or the other person’s short coming, it is still something that has happened to me. Either way I should not blame myself or the other. We ought not to regard this as an evil thing that either was caused by me or the other. Things take place all the time. If I dwell on it, I will become psychologically devastated. Instead I interpret these events as what happens in this imperfect world, no matter how careful I may be. Remember son that once a farmer lost the only horse he had. His concerned neighbor found out about it and paid him a visit to console him. He told the farmer he was sorry for what had happened to him. He also added that it was a bad thing to occur to anyone. To his surprise, the farmer said: What’s good, what’s bad? The lost horse came back with several horses from the wilderness. The curious neighbor showed up at his door to congratulate him. But he was surprised again when he heard the same thing. While taming one of the horses, his son fell off one of them and broke his leg. When his father was visited by an army recruiter, the officer instead took his neighbor’s son with him. (H. Smith, world religions, Taoism). I learned this from you master. We need to accept good with bad and vice versa, I believe. I guess that is what you mean by values being relative. Things happen for reasons. However, gods or deities are not involved with this project. You don’t have to keep blaming yourself and others. Stop judging yourself and others. Just accept the fact that you’re not living in paradise but this world of change and becoming, opposites and contradictions, imperfections, and impermanence. We’re expecting too much of this world. However, our question about life remains unanswered.
What is life? Ben Franklin once said: “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” These days we’re told time is money, which logically means life is made of money. Strangely, this quotation appears in the beginning of the movie, “Gone with the Wind.” So, life is made of time and finally is money.
Time became very important in the 19th century, thanks to Hegel’s philosophy of history. Perhaps Ben was one of its victims. Although it was regarded as absolute by Isaac Newton, by the time we get to 20th century, it was Gone with the Wind, thanks to Albert Einstein. Time represents change and becoming for Hegel. Finally, God became time in the 19th century. But how is life made of time? I believe Ben was trying to teach us the value of time. Otherwise, we know that time was an illusion to both the ancient Hindus and the pre-Socratic thinker, Parmenides. However, our questions remain unanswered: What is being? What is life? Where was I? What is this? Where do I go after I die? I’m still wondering. In fact, I have been wondering all my life. After all, what is the purpose of this whole episode? Does life have an intention? Why things just don’t stay the same? Why do we become nostalgic? Why do we want to go back? Why are we so attached to our memories of the past event? Memories of things passed are always with us. We’re told to be in the present, the now, and the moment, and not in the past or the future. But I can’t forget the past. I go places I have been. Some of them are still there and some are long gone. Time seems to crush everything on its way. Growing up, the family was there for you, father, mother, brothers, sisters, and relatives and friends. As time passes, this manifestation of Shiva destroys them one by one. Of course, it doesn’t mean time is a killer or murderer. But it is the shadow of motion. Ironically, it also helps us to heal after every tragedy. It is a double-edged sword. “Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword” (Christ). Those who are attached to time shall be crushed by it. Buddha spoke of it 2600 years ago. When you’re attached to the passing world, you’re bound to feel miserable.
We look for eternity in time, but we’re disappointed every time. We wish the family we grew up with to be there forever. But it just doesn’t happen. We move on along with others. We all go through life and death. Vacuum, void, emptiness, and nothingness let us have a taste of death. However, we move forward to challenge death while it follows us like a shadow. Logically, we must not be, because being can’t come from non-being. But here we are in the real world outside of our mind, as if we can be in such a world. By ‘here’ we don’t mean to say that this is possible. People like Buddha could separate themselves from their mind in order to see the real world. Nonetheless, for the sake of the argument, let us believe, at least for a moment, that we are not in the realm of logic and rationality. In this ontological world, we don’t experience death. As you know, here we’re not talking about the biological death. This is where the world is no longer an illusion. Motion and rest have been defied. This is the world that is beyond time and space. We’re here and now and in the abode of the Ultimate Reality. We’re no longer in the realm of opinions, according to Plato. We have ascended the Jacob’s ladder, along with the angels, to the highest point, to the apex, the zenith, the summit, the acme, and the pinnacle of perfection. This is where, even the angels can’t reach. In the New Testament, Jesus indirectly speaks of himself as that ladder through whom we can ascend to the Ultimate Reality. This ladder could be likened to the vertical aspect of the Caduceus, whereas the snake or snakes represent the psyche. In the modern world this symbol, with snakes coiled around it, has been mistakenly used in the medical fields. The original symbol goes way back to the time of Hermes, the ancient Egyptian god or prophet. We’re reminded of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible. As you recall, there is a serpent on that tree which represents evil. The snake, or the psyche, or the mind, or the soul doesn’t allow us to climb the tree. Christ, however, is crucified on the tree. He sacrificed himself so we can through him reach the highest point. Snakes killed him. But they realize they couldn’t murder the son of God or God for that matter. Perhaps real Jesus had already been lifted up to Heaven like Elijah in the Old Testament. Then who was on the cross? May be there was a vicarious phenomenon involved. It is also possible that Krishna’s teaching could help us here. This is when Krishna tells Arjuna that in reality you’re not killing them because I cannot be dead. You didn’t kill Christ because Atman and Brahman are one. What we saw was only his body on the cross, though looked like him, it was not him. He was no longer a whole but a part. Ironically we have been crucifying him over and over again since his actual crucifixion.
He is said to have taken all of our sins to the cross. I rather believe he carried all the blames, false accusations, censures, condemnations, disapprovals, and reproaches, which had been aimed at him, to the cross. Although he was so pure, he was still accused of things he had never committed. He couldn’t have identified himself with them. They just unloaded their own sins on him. They dumped buckets of guilt paints on him. This paint was red. Yes it was the color of blood. They were heavy with their wrong doings, so let him carry them to the cross, so they would feel lighter. Isn’t this what we do to each other these days? Instead of accepting responsibility for our actions, we put the blames on others. We like to blame everybody and everything except ourselves. We push others dawn so we look tall. We’re so short sighted that we forget what others have done for us. But as soon as they fail to do a small favor for us, we treat them as if they have never helped us. We’re blind to see what people have done or still doing for us. However, when we do a fraction of what they do for us, we feel so emboldened to act as if they owe their life to us for that very small action we did for them. They want you to feel that you have not done enough for them. They cannot give, unless there is something in it for them. They cannot do something for you without expectation. They cannot practice “karma yoga” taught to Arjuna by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita of the Upanishads thousands of years ago. They can’t comprehend Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Christ gave with no expectation what so ever. He was not the child of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, you ought to treat others, as you would like them to treat you. This has a Hypothetical imperative element in it. If you respect others, then you’ll be respected in return. This is called hypothetical imperative, according to Kant. But you and I know very well that this is not always the case. Many times we have treated others with respect and what we received in return was nothing but disrespect. This is the nature of the hypothetical imperative. You just can’t predict the future with it. Jesus was aware of this fact, so he told his followers that, even if you’re disrespected by others, treat them with respect any way. This is not a conditional statement to put us in a hypothetical imperative situation. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Jesus). Treat others with reverence, even if they don’t deserve it. Deal with them with love, even when they act towards you with hatred. These individuals need love more than anybody else. Forgive them Father because they don’t know what they do. It could be mistaken for a hypothetical imperative way but this is not the golden rule at all. This is a step beyond the golden rule. Even though they’re ignorant, don’t treat them with ignorance. Two wrongs don’t make it right. This is the question of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. As Hume taught us, we shouldn’t infer ought from is. Just because this is the way they’re, we ought not to retaliate. We ought to be different than they way they are. This sounds like “karma yoga” in Hinduism and “categorical imperative” in Kant’s moral philosophy, which was rooted in the Religion he was born into. His parents were members of a German community, who had followed a revival of devotional ideal in the Lutheran Church. (New World Dictionary) He was a protestant Christian who later became a philosopher. Ironically, some call his categorical imperative a manifestation of the golden rule. Categorical imperative cannot be like the golden rule, unless it is a hypothetical imperative, which involves Consequentialism and he is a non-Consequentialist moral thinker. Kant’s first principle can be turned into a hypothetical imperative but it’s constructed so we wouldn’t be able to do so easily: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (L. Vaughn, Doing Ethics, P.103) To forgive is better than to retaliate. Kant’s position is different from the golden rule. On the other hand, Jesus didn’t believe in having the ignorant punished. You don’t treat ignorance with ignorance. We shouldn’t wash blood with blood. But why Immanuel Kant believed in retribution? If you act only on this maxim, then you will it becomes a universal law for everyone to follow. Is Kant contradicting himself here? Well, perhaps this was the reason why he was criticized on his first principle. No wonder why he came up with the second and the third principles. Once consolidated, they give us the kingdom of ends. In other words, don’t make others the means to your ends and vice versa. Don’t selfishly use people and don’t let anyone selfishly use you. It is not right to abuse others, nor is it right to be abused by them. This imperative is categorical.
Nevertheless, we leave these philosophical and theological issues for the philosophers and theologians to work on.
Let us now get back to our point here. Our main concern is ‘being’ and ‘life.’ What is it? Why do I have to be to suffer? Why should I be punished? For what crime have I been incarcerated? Did I ask to be? If not, then why am I held responsible for my actions? May be Religions and their scriptures are nothing but myths and mythologies. Perhaps they’re only narratives or stories of the past. How do we know they’re revealed words of the gods or the goddesses? We’re put in this cave locked up in time and space. The earth keeps moving around itself and the sun. In the mean time people are falling into their death like the autumn leaves, while new crowd are being born to replace them. What is the purpose of leaving this world and others coming into being as babies? Show me the rationale behind this going and coming. I guess we have no choice but admit that we badly need to penetrate these stories in order to reach their original messages.
I have been using the words ‘life’ and ‘being’ interchangeably so we don’t get stuck with attributes for the former. Our goal is to know what life is in and of itself, not whether life is beautiful or not. What is ‘being’ in itself? It is nothing. It seems as if we’re experiencing what both the second century, Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna and long before him Cratylus of Athens, the student of Heraclitus, Plato’s first teacher, believed to be true. Heraclitus argued that we can never step into the same river twice. Cratylus responded by saying that there is no river to step in to begin with. However, when we say ‘being’ is nothing, this is in the realm of logic or mind. Nonetheless, it corresponds to the ontological reality up to certain point. ‘Nothing’ can’t be something logically. ‘Being’, however, can be non-being. However, Lao tells us a different story:
“Being and non-being create each other.” (Tao Te Ching, Trans by S. Mitchell, chapter, 2). Lao believed the whole of reality comes from the Tao. What is Tao? It is the Reality which is beyond any duality. It is not non-being because its opposite is being and this gives us duality. In this world they produce each other. (W. Dyer, Change your thoughts-Change your life, p.8). In the ontological realm we read: “Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see.” (Tao Te Ching, chapter, 21). When natural fire reaches a forest, it will burn it like Shiva, the destroyer god of Hinduism. Fire is being or the cause. It turned a good part of the forest into non-being. Lao teaches us that non-being emerged out of being, as we can see. Then being begins to come into existence, namely, standing out there, after a while out of non-being. This occurs when new plants gradually start rising from ashes like phoenix, the bird in Egyptian mythology that consumed itself by fire after 500 years and rose renewed from its ashes. (American Heritage Dictionary) It is said to have lived all those years and then burned itself to death only to rise from its ashes. (The Random House Dictionary) Think for a moment about the resurrection of Christ whether there is a similarity between the two. Being engenders non-being, just as non-being produces being. Cause creates effect, just as effect produces cause. You have an idea in your mind, which in turn gives rise to an effect. This is through your mind, which can manifest itself outside your mind. For example, the statue of David was once an idea in the mind of Michel Angelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). This karmic process keeps unfolding all the time. Cause and effect exist in the mind and outside of your mind. It is from your mind to the world and from the world to the mind. We ought to break away from this bondage of cause and effect. The Hindus suggested ‘karma yoga’ which is in the Bhagavad-Gita. Kant dealt with it in his mind. Being under the influence of David Hume, he said we’re autonomous being and we should rise above our nature which involves cause and effect. However, the outside cause and effect are nothing but the reflection of what they are in our mind.
Hume was skeptical as far as a link between cause and effect. But Kant believed there is a connection which should be avoided to prevent us from falling into determinism. Remember, Kant took causality back to the mind as a rationalist and argued what is out there is nothing but the reflection of what is in the mind. I’m a free individual, Kant argued, because I’m capable of rising above this causality with which I was born and it is innate. Cause and effect are colored contact lenses glued in my mind since I was born so I can see the world accordingly.
Buddha was asked what causes death. He responded by saying that what causes death is rebirth and vice versa. Rebirth is the cause or being, whereas, death is non-being. Non-being in turn is the cause of being.
It is believed God gives without expectation. His love comes dawn to everyone and everything like rain but it doesn’t get involved with the process of cause and effect, though Al-Gazali would disagree.
A fortune cookie reads: “Life is not a struggle. It’s a wiggle.” We must wiggle through these causes and effects of life. We shouldn’t blame God for what happens to us. God is not involved with this world of change and becoming. Impermanence and the karmic theater of causality make us wiggle through our sufferings. We ought to ascend through karma yoga to reach the Ultimate reality. We’re chained in this cave called the world. We must unchain ourselves and reach the sun to become enlightened. This is not our home. We’re thrown into this world. This is the world of yin and yang, per the ancient Chinese. Yang (being) enters yin (non-being) and vice versa. This is the world of opposites and contradictions. Day enters night and night enters day. (The Holy Qur’an) Being enters non-being and non-being enters being. What is going on in the natural realm? Then Lao tells us, in the Tao Te Ch’ing, that difficult and easy support one another. Long and short define one another. High and low depend on one another. “All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being.” (Lao, chapter 40) Before and after follow one another. (S. Mitchell, chapter 2).
Limited and unlimited pursue each other. This unlimited Reality followed Emmanuel Kant like a shadow when he declared that pure reason was limited. How can you know the limit of something, unless you know the whole? Just as with Descartes that we must have a prior awareness before we conclude that ‘I think, therefore, I’m,’ we should also have some idea as to the whole measure of a thing before we talk about its limit. However, Kant seems to have forgotten that there was a difference between the unlimited Reason and the limited one. He cannot have what is called ‘synthetic a priori’ statement. Empiricism is about experiencing the objective reality not that which is a projection of your own mind already. If the world is but a reflection of my categories, then how can it be objective? How can Kant unify rationalism and empiricism? Analytic and a priori statements give us the former, while synthetic and posteriori provide us with the latter. The cross between the two camps puts us in the presence of synthetic a priori. However, the question remains as to why Kant would consider the world, which is his own construct, an objective reality? This, I believe, is Kant’s subjectivism. It seems as if he fell into some sort of reductionism, namely, what the idealists and materialists did when they tried to bridge the gap between mind and body in Cartesian’s dualism. Either everything is made of mind or matter, which is not much a unity between the two. Kant seems to have been holding the former position, which reminds us of Berkeley’s idealism. Because he, that is, Berkeley, adamantly attacked John Locke on the fact that what he had thought to be the objective world was nothing but another idea.
For Kant pure reason and Intellect are one reality and this phenomenon is limited. However, in the classical period, the Intellect was the unlimited Reality within us. Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) openly talked about it while the Catholic Church denied it. Once he was dead, then it was acknowledged by the Church. The only way for the pure reason to be regarded as limited, is when the Intellect is an independent reality within us. But once the two become one, we cannot make a statement that pure reason is limited. Because Kant’s own pure reason then can also be considered limited. How can a limited reason state that it is limited? Only an unlimited reason, namely, the Intellect can say pure reason is limited. The statement, ‘pure reason is limited’ itself is subject to limitation because it is made by a limited reason. Socrates tells us he knows that he doesn’t know. I know this much that I don’t know, said good old Socrates, who was considered the wisest of all men in Athens. I know that I’m not. I’m aware of my short coming. I’m cognizant of my limitation. Did Kant ever say that? Nevertheless, he says that I know this much that pure reason has its own limit. How can we trust that Kant’s statement is correct knowing that it comes from his limited reason? He can’t get to his true Self by pure reason, while his true Reason is nothing but the Intellect itself. It is through the unlimited Reason or the Intellect that I can reach my true Reason, which is the Intellect itself. Think for a moment, that, on the one hand, we can’t know our true Self through pure reason. On the other hand, the only way we know this is by the intellect or our true Self or that very awareness that comes before Cartesian’s “I think, therefore, I’m.
In the holy Qur’an God tells us not to clothe or dress the truth with falsehood. We hide and cover the truth all the time. When I dye my hair, I’m hiding my gray hairs. We hide our cell phones when we’re told not to use them in the class. Perhaps we just don’t want the truth to reveal itself. However, the sun pierces through the clouds eventually.
Finally, what is life or being? Is this a dream? Is this an illusion or Maya in Hinduism? Is this a mystery, as Madonna had it in one of her songs? Is this life of mine a reincarnation of who I was in my past existence? Do we have dreams of butterflies or we’re in their dreams, speculated a Chinese sage who lived long time ago? Are we the only creatures who ask these questions or others in this world and the universe have been asking the same thing? Perhaps there is no answer to this question. Can mother fish answer her off springs as to what water is? We know we’re in being or we’re be-ing. But what if death were part of being? Just because our bodies decay, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are not be-ing. We may be, even after we’re dead. We may appear to be gone, but we’re not. My body is subject to change and becoming. It is in time and space. It never grows younger, even when it is in the womb. A fetus is getting older.
I look back at my memories and I wonder about them. What happened then? Why would I want to give the whole world, if I possessed it, to have only one hour of my childhood life back? Why is it so sad to know we can never turn back time? Why is it so hard to accept that even this present time is so quickly leaving me to become part of the history of my life? Where are, we going? It looks like we’re trying to get to the other side the lake by boat and the water under us is like time. It is moving so rapidly from ahead of us, the future and under the boat, the present, and leaving us, the past. Is this why the elderly drive so slowly on the high ways? Why would they want to speed up and accelerate? We remember the time we used to spend with our loved ones or others. We wish we could have been with them again. We wish we could enjoy life like we did before. But even while we’re thinking about these issues, time is passing and we’re missing these precious moments.
Biblically, we seem to have been punished for thousands of years. We had it so good in the Garden of Eden and had been complacent for so long that we didn’t realize it wouldn’t last forever. It sounds as if time existed even in paradise.
Our Old Testament tells us that once God was done using Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative by commanding Adam and Eve not to touch the tree and eat its fruits, then He appeals to the hypothetical imperative. If you do, then you’ll die. We all know that they didn’t die. However, it is possible God told them they would be punished, which they did. Think for a moment about the vulnerability of the hypothetical imperative in the first case.
Nonetheless, I think about the movie called, ‘Sixth sense’ in which the little boy sees dead people. Perhaps it is possible that if we don’t live authentically, we’re dead. Adam and eve were there but they were not living an authentic life. We see a lot of dead people around us daily. Some think that death is a punishment. While in fact it is a blessing in disguise at times. Confucius simply answered the seeker with another question: “Do you know what life is?” The answer was ‘No’. Then don’t worry about life after death. As you notice, he didn’t tell the seeker not to question death. So, death remains a mystery as much as life itself. Can we look at life as being and death as non-being? Is rebirth being, causing death the, non-being?
When Buddha was asked about death, he said: The cause of death is rebirth. Being gives birth to non-being. Non-being fives birth to being. “All things are born of being. Being is born of non-being.”(Lao-tzu.) The Ultimate Reality is beyond birth and death. In the chapter on ‘Unity’, in the Holy Qur’an, we read: God is one. Nothing can add to him and nothing can subtract from Him. He begets not; nor was He begotten. He is unique. (The Study Quran, S.H. Nasr). Life and death follow each other. They create one another. They support each other. They define one another. They depend on each other. But why? Is that how Lao would have answered our question? This is the way life and death are. This is the way things are. However, I’m not interested in knowing how they ought to be. This is not about ethics. This is not even about how they could be either. This is about their essence. Why are we? Why do we decay and get old? Why do we die? I’m interested to know how things are. You see, madame you’re sad because your baby is dead. But look around you. Isn’t how everything is? The flowers and plants follow the same order. Then why are you upset? Do we think Buddha himself was satisfied with his answer? I don’t believe so. You shouldn’t sorrow because this is the way the world is. Are not we inferring ‘ought’ from ‘is’ here? This answer would make David Hume see red with anger. However, in the natural law things are they way they ought to be. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, though he died later. Even Christ himself died, whether on the cross or of the natural death. But what about Elijah, who ascended to Heaven without death? Christians believe the same thing happened to Jesus. Krishna tells Arjuna in Bhagavad- Gita, that death is like changing your cloths. Perhaps he meant we never die. We’re in life as much as we’re in death. Who we really are, never goes away. Being is being, either here or after here. Life is absurd, Albert Camus tells us. But we don’t want to know all these adjectives about life. These attributes are fine and yet they don’t tell me anything regarding life itself.
It is said that the Ultimate Reality is pure actuality. It is perfect. It is sufficient onto itself. Its essence and existence are one. It is within its possibility to extend itself. This is part of its perfection. Therefore, we and the rest of existence are part of this perfection, though we and the rest of reality are imperfect. It is in the essence of the sun to shed light without which it would not be the sun. Thus, it is in the essence of the Ultimate Reality to give of itself. We’re here because we’re an extension of this Reality. This whole universe is here as a possibility of its perfection. Imperfection, which is the world, is part of the perfection of the Ultimate Reality. The light of the sun as it reaches out; it gets weaker because it is now approaching the darkness. This light is not as strong as the sun itself. Nonetheless, it is still one with the sun. The many, which is in the realm of imperfection, is the possibility of the perfect Ultimate Reality. Are we introducing duality to the One? Not really, because what we call the many and the One are the One ultimately any way. The particles of the sun light in the ocean, though many are One Reality. Light of the sun may be dimmer, but it is still part of the sun. Perfection is not perfection unless it manifests its possibility. This possibility is us and the rest of the universe. Lawrence Oliver was by far one of the best Shakespearean actor and movie star. In the language of Aristotle, he had achieved excellence. Nevertheless, he accepted a role at his old age which was below his dignity. He appeared as a former Nazi criminal in a movie. From the outset, we tend to look dawn on him for accepting such a role. However, we should realize that he was proving we’re not excellent until we can play a role that is the lowest there is. This means even the best and the most excellent could play the worst without which he is not perfect. The Ultimate Reality is so perfect that cannot be what it is in its essence, unless it manifests its possibility of imperfection, which is the universe and us in it. It sounds contradictory at first. This doesn’t mean it is perfect and not perfect at the same time, which would be contradictory at best. However, the Ultimate Reality is beyond our Aristotelian logic, which has its own limitations shown in quantum physics. Being and non-being fall into how things are in this world, as Lao demonstrated that in his work. We could say that necessary Being is the Ultimate Reality from which non-being emerges. The combination of the two gives us the world of becoming, which is the one we live in and the rest of the universe.
Nevertheless, this model can’t help us to deal with the Ultimate Reality. We ought to move out of our logical mind into the ontological realm and even higher than that. But how can we do that intellectually? The mind can take us only so far. Nonetheless, we try our best to see whether the analogy of the sun can assist us in our efforts. For the sun to be what it is, it must extend itself in terms of its rays, which they become weaker as they move into the ocean of darkness. However, the weak light of the sun is still part of the sun. This universe of being is also part of this Reality no matter how imperfect it may be. Therefore, this is why we’re here.
Lao continues to tell us on chapter 2 that since the world is as it is, “therefore the Master [the seeker] acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess acts but doesn’t expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.” It is very much possible that by the word ‘Master’ he meant the Tao. This is what life is all about. He tells us how the world functions and what our moral duties should be.
Naturally we ought to learn to live morally in this world. ‘Is’ and ‘ought’ are harmonious. We ought to live according to the natural law in which the presence of the Tao in the entire universe is observed.
Let us remember that we have been on this trip for the essence of life or being intellectually. We know this method has its own short comings. However, in the absence of contemplative and meditational way of reaching for the nature of life, we can finally say that perfection without imperfection has no meaning and vice versa. Thus, life is this very imperfection which is part of the jigsaw puzzle, namely, the Ultimate Reality. Logically speaking, perfection needs imperfection and vice versa. But the Ultimate Reality being sufficient on to itself, doesn’t need anything to be itself. After all, isn’t life or being, in the final analysis, nothing but an illusion? This life is like a hole, though real, it is nothing in itself. It is like a dream, even though it is true, but it is nothing. Therefore, if there is an Ultimate Reality, life is nothing, which adds nothing to it. It is like 0+1 which equals 1. There is only One Reality and that is the Ultimate.
What is life any way? Perhaps the very question itself is the answer. Other than that, I still have no clue. I guess if I had, I wouldn’t be a philosopher, as Socrates believed. Therefore, I continue pursuing till I find the answer. I’m sorry to disappoint you my readers. At least I know this much that I still don’t know the answer.