Last week I saw the movie Hereafter where a little boy, having lost a loved one, types into Google, ‘What happens when we die?”
It’s a question none of us can answer for sure. We may have beliefs and beliefs can be powerful, but even those who have had brief experiences of dying and coming back to life cannot be sure that what they experienced was death itself or just a passage to another experience. A brush with death can instill a powerful sense of knowing, but it’s a knowing that transcends retelling, and in many cases eventually fades.
Yet even though we can’t know, it’s still such an interesting topic. What is more universal than death? We all will experience it sooner or later whether we are curious, fearful or blasé about the subject.
When I have a question about such things, I don’t go to Google. I go to nature. I take a slow walk with lots of pauses and ask my question of the trees, the river, the rocks, the lizards, the ocean, the breeze, the clouds, the birds, the mountain and the sky.
Nature knows all about death. In nature death is simply a transitive state. Every living thing is, in any given moment, transitioning through life, death and decay that gives birth to new life. The cycles of nature are so strong and so apparent that the question of death, which for us may be frightening or awe-inspiring, seems almost superfluous. Death is just one moment in the cycle of life. Gardeners know this from tending closely the cycles of plants. While they are enchanted by the bursting forth of a beautiful blossom, they learn to value all the seasons in the garden, including the winter where all the rich activity goes underground. An in-tuned gardener might begin to get a sense of the plants own view of the world, how disease is not a bad thing, just another life-form– bacteria, virus, fungus — gaining energy. Only the gardener has the goal for the garden to look perfect and in bloom at all times. The plants, animals and the earth itself seem to have a very different sense of what matters.
Living close to the earth and the cycles of nature, it makes perfect sense to think that we too cycle again and again through life. So it is not surprising that one strong belief held by a large portion of the human population is reincarnation.
There’s something appealing about the idea of having another chance at life. But nature doesn’t turn a dead tree into another tree specifically. The tree dies, falls, decays and feeds the forest floor from which rise up all matter of plants, depending on factors like sunlight, rainfall and what seeds or other means of propagation fell in that area of the forest.
Yes, yes, you might say, but we are not talking about our physical bodies but our souls. It is the soul that is reincarnated. I used to like to imagine a river of soul that at death our soul-portion for this life is poured into and at birth our new soul-portion is scooped out of. So once in a while a scoop might pick up an intact scoop that had been just poured, but most of the time our reincarnation is a soul formed out of the whole soul river in a combination never before scooped. So that we are each unique, and yet hold the microcosmic memory of the macrocosmic soul river in our very beings. I still like that image, but I don’t pretend to know if it is so. There is an odd comfort that comes with truly not knowing.
It seems that the Buddha wasn’t all that interested in what happens after we die. Perhaps in his world 2500 years ago reincarnation was so universally accepted, he didn’t need to question it. He was however interested in using awareness of the inevitability of death to enhance awareness of life and to alleviate the constricting fear of death. One Buddhist practice is to spend time meditating in the charnel grounds contemplating the decaying remains of the dead. This was not a morbid fascination with death but a way to bring about awareness of the truth of impermanence. Coming to a deep understanding of the nature of impermanence helps us to value each moment as we live it, knowing it is a precious and fleeting gift. The Buddha’s interest in death was primarily about how to live with the fact of death and still find joy in life, how to live with the pain of grief without compounding our suffering, and how to be sufficiently present in our lives so that we will be present for the great transition to whatever it is that happens after we die.
If you are interested in this preparation aspect for yourself or someone close to you, you might read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. He also discusses reincarnation and other aspect of Tibetan Buddhist practice and beliefs.
Most of us are curious, as the little boy in the movie I mentioned was curious, as to what follows this life. Is it because it is unknown and therefore a mystery we want to solve? Is it a way of finding some control of something we have no way of controlling? Is it the fear of non-existence? Or is it concern for the happiness of loved ones who have passed?
For those whose beliefs include heaven and hell, it’s not the fear of non-existence, but concern over making sure they get to the right place. These two ‘destinations’ have been used as reward and punishment by the powerful to hold the masses at bay very effectively. Great reward or eternal damnation: you choose. It’s easy to pooh-pooh the existence of heaven and hell when put in such simplistic terms. For many people it’s almost as easy to put away the images of the angel and the harp and the red horned devil as it is to let go of the Easter bunny.
Yet when we take away the idea that heaven and hell are places to go, they begin to take on richer significance and deeper understanding of original insight.
Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That means that life is not a waiting room where we pass time, trying to be good and apologizing deeply when we mess up, so that the big man in the sky will admit us to the pearly gates some day.
It means that in this very moment, you can accept the presence of God in your heart. And what does that mean in terms that those who aren’t comfortable with ‘God talk’ can understand? It means that at this very moment awareness of the infinite nature of being and the interconnected vibrating pulsing energy of all existence is available to all who take the time to quiet down and listen in. Listen in to the body with all its senses ready to anchor us into the moment, listen in to the energy that vibrates within and vibrates in the air that touches our skin, and vibrates in the furniture upon which we sit, the buildings, the trees and all beings, all life, on and on beyond our little planet into the vastness of infinite space. ‘World without end.’ Amen!
The test of any concept is in the here and now. When we bring the concepts of heaven and hell into this moment, we can see how we create our own heaven and hell here and now by the way we relate to what arises in our own current experience. We can see how the hellish suffering in this moment is brought on by our own reactions to situations.
If this moment is peaceful, joyous, beautiful and precious, then how is it not heaven? Would you really prefer trying to walk on clouds eternally? Walking on this rich earth, smelling the autumnal air, seeing the fall foliage in all its brilliant coloration, feeling the warmth of a sweater or jacket allowing us to fully enjoy the cool crisp air or the misty rain – does it really get better than this? Or is this in fact the heaven, the treat, the opportunity that all souls crave and so few are blessed to experience?
There is a Buddhist saying that it is as rare to be blessed with living a human existence as it is for a sea turtle to poke its head up in the one circle of a lifesaver tossed on the vast oceans of the earth. Value this life, this precious fleeting life! Then you will be ready for whatever follows and be able to value it too. That’s the Buddhist message.
We are consciousness caught up in patterns of being. Our bodies die away and are buried or cremated, but if our consciousness does live on, certainly we want it to live on unconstricted by tight patterns of fear.
If there is a conscious afterlife, it might be reasonable to think that it will be heavenly if we have found heaven in each moment and that is our way of being in the world, and hellish if we have spent our lives caught up in hellish suffering, unable to connect with the joy of simply being alive.
You can see how this could be interpreted as reward and punishment for behavior. People who find joy in every moment spread joy to others, behave honorably and value all life. They go to heaven because they are already ‘heavenly’ creatures. And conversely those whose every waking (and maybe dreaming) moment is a struggle with inner ‘demons’ have no doubt made poor choices, have perhaps lashed out in anger, and undoubtedly have made the lives of those around them difficult or even dangerous. For them, so constricted in fear, so tight-fisted and self-protective, so unwilling to open to the universal love available to them in any moment if only they would choose to unclench their fists, jaws and minds, one can only imagine they will continue that struggle with their demons in whatever afterlife there may be. In other words, hell.
Now as I recall, Jesus promised that any sinner could redeem himself in an instant. Would this not be the instant that we make the shift from the tight fear-based view of the world and open to the universal nature of loving-kindness? But we might say, ‘Hey wait a minute, that’s not fair that they can live a whole life of sin and then get off scot-free at the end just by saying they accept Jesus in their hearts.’ But when we get caught up in the tightness of judging it is we who are living in a hell of our own making, seeing a limited view of the nature of things.
In truth, it’s not all that easy to give up a life-time of rigid tight fear-based thought patterns, but it is possible. The shift from fear to love is possible in any moment for anyone.
Of course very few of us in this life are living either in heaven or hell all the time. We have our heavenly and our hellish moments, and if there is a hereafter, we can only hope that there will be some enhanced illumination that allows us to understand more fully the unitive nature of being.
But while we’re here, living this life in this moment, let’s do the practices we can to develop our ability to create spaciousness, awareness and loving-kindness to whatever arises in our experience. Let’s do the practices that bring joy into this moment, each moment we are alive.
May our practice of living fully in this moment prepare us for the moment of our death and whatever lies beyond. May our practice be for the benefit of all beings that all beings may know peace.
In our class today, we lit candles and shared stories about loved ones who have died. The experience was deep, and tears hovered close, but it was also incredibly sweet. Because quite clearly no one gets through life without grief. Whether the loss of a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend, or someone else close to us. We have this in common. And that commonality is the greatest gift to ease our suffering. We are not alone in grief. Loss is universal to the human condition. We send metta, ease and peace to all beings everywhere, living and dead.