A friend who has a Christian perspective gave me a copy of a book that I have been reading. Very near the end now, I came upon a statement about three ways of viewing life and death:
“There are essentially three philosophies of man, three philosophies of life. Eastern mysticism, Western secularism, and Biblical theism. The first simply denies the ego as illusion, as dead; the second simply affirms its natural life; and the third sees it as something that truly lives only by dying.” Quoted from “Love is Stronger than Death”, by Peter Kreeft, page 90.
I had already been experiencing a gathering resistance to the author’s claim that the moment of our death is the central moment of this life. I’m sure that my holding back is related to my relationship with Buddhism (in whose teachings I have found more nourishment than I have found in Christianity). And any interpretation of the mystery of life and death that would require me to develop a “self”, able to choose its own immortality, seems a strange kind of homecoming. To prepare for death as a moment when everything will either disappear or welcome me into a greater wholeness, places emphasis on a “self” that I don’t see as having that kind of power.
Reading the sentences quoted above, several questions came to mind:
–What do I actually imagine will happen when I die?
–Do I experience an inner life that I feel can continue after I die?
–Am I failing to hear a message that this inner being is trying to tell me?
–Am I hearing what I have learned to hear and ignoring what remains unknown?
–Can I be open to a mysterious presence that is probably prior to, more fundamental than, and more vital than what I have been conditioned to notice?
Peter Kreeft makes it clear that he believes only Christianity understands the true meaning of death. The vehicle that he identifies as able to carry us, at the moment of our death, into immortality—a future that is not guaranteed simply by being born into this world–is the self, or ego. Therefore, when he characterizes Buddhism (“eastern mysticism”) as denying the existence of that “self”, he seems to be issuing a sentence of death for countless human souls.
It is therefore not surprising that I object to this picture of what awaits me.
I seem to have been conditioned to believe that it is a mistake to wait for anything we view as important. Since the death of my son, Jon, almost five years ago, I have experienced a new concern for what happens when we humans die. Yet, something in the way I anticipate death has continued on much as before: I still don’t have a clear vision of what happens when we die.
Reading in this book the author’s exhortation to treat preparation for the moment of death as the fundamental purpose of our birth into this world (and as the core task of our present life on Earth), I question whether it is a good idea to be waiting for an event that lies in the future.
I suspect that at the moment of death we will be glad for whatever we appreciated in our lives and for any love we felt, especially whatever prompted us to be helpful to others and the world. And it seems a fine possibility if we should be then swept into an inclusive wholeness, in which the “self” ceases to exist in its own right–as I hear being described in Kahlil Gibran’s poem, Fear:
It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
. . . . .
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
What I hear in Buddhist-influenced writings is that our self-images and our tendency to place the self at the center of whatever reality we feel we are inhabiting, leads to suffering. Our ordinary life is presented as an opportunity to challenge the hold such self-centeredness has over us.
I don’t hear in Buddhist-influenced writing that the moment of death is a crucial moment for transformation. If we are to be transformed into a being able to live more abundantly, it is now while we are alive and straddling the two realms–of the individual and the infinite–that we have an opportunity to experience such transformation. I hear in Buddhist-influenced writing that it is an unfortunate misunderstanding to wait for an opportunity to arise later and to spend our time now in preparation for a more propitious moment to show up. What I hear is that right now is our chance to engage whatever life, love and the certainty of death have to teach us.
Whatever philosophic approach speaks to us– Eastern mysticism, Western secularism, or Biblical theism—the caring we bring into our present life is surely our best preparation for whatever awaits us in death. The woman who gave me this book is a shining example of how we can use our time here on earth to help others have a better chance for fulfilment; so, I definitely don’t think of her as postponing present good on behalf of a promise of later eternity. After all, we each find our inspiration whenever and however it lands in our inner being.
This morning, in the final few pages of a book I have been reading daily, I read a passage that expresses a way of looking at life that I find nurturing and encouraging:
“Please understand: What I am offering here is not a philosophy of knowledge or a psychology of action. It is not brain science, or a self-help tool designed to make you more successful, or a sociological essay on how you can best adapt to the culture we live in today.
“It is not a set of instructions for entering heaven after you die, or moral advice. It is not advice at all.
“What I am talking about is how things really are for us, and not how they seem. The very stuff that makes up the texture of our lives typically goes unexamined: the nature of self and mind, perception, cognition, language, time, the momentum toward change that makes human experience possible, in all its richness.”
—Gesture of Great Love, Page 123, Tarthang Tulku.