Wednesday, April 4, 2018


More thoughts about death this morning, but this time I’m thinking about the other side of the threshold—what, if anything, might await us there; and how those expectations might affect the way I choose to live my life right now.

First off, I long ago abandoned any belief in the Christian notion of an afterlife. I do not expect my namesake to be waiting for me with his keys at heaven’s gate. I confess to having committed some painfully unskillful acts in the course of my life, but I find the thought of being consigned to eternal damnation to pay for them to be utterly absurd. Nor do I expect to be rewarded for a handful of good deeds with eternal residence in the mansion of some almighty (and judgmental!) Supreme Being. Even the most benign, non-literal, and therefore metaphorical image of such an afterlife has no resonance with me.

I do believe in karma—the eminently reasonable, empirically demonstrable proposition that actions have consequences; unskillful actions (I prefer the Buddhist “skillful/unskillful” over the Christian “good” and “evil”) lead to harmful, undesirable outcomes, while skillful actions lead to outcomes that will prove beneficial to myself as well as others. With this belief in mind it behooves me, in the time that remains, to do make the effort to ensure that my every action is a skillful one; or, at the very least, to do no further harm.

That said, my skeptical mind finds it hard to accept the (actually logical) extension of belief in karma to a belief in the Buddhist concept or rebirth. As I understand it—and perhaps I oversimplify—the two are interdependent: it is the principle of karma that assures my progress, through possibly many thousands of lives, toward enlightenment. With skillful practice, I may learn to gradually become a better being.

But this, as I see it, is where an admirably reasonable code of ethics and the best of all manuals for responsible—and even, yes, happy—living crosses the line into religious faith, and it’s a line that I myself have been unable thus far to cross. I am more persuaded—and this, I grant, is a purely intellectual conviction—by the atheist belief that our life begins with birth and ends with death; that there is no “afterlife,” no “rebirth.” It’s an unpalatable notion but all others seem, well, fanciful by comparison.

So this is where I stand at this moment. Am I open to changing my view? To embracing other, more enticing, possibilities? Of course. Though I wonder to what extent the inevitable approach of death serves to engender wishful thinking. But then my experience with meditation—I have mentioned this before—leaves me with the sense, the intuition, perhaps, that there is something beyond the “me” that I currently inhabit; something other than “my” physical body, other than “my” passing thoughts and feelings, other than the shifting identities I have worn like so many different suits of clothes—or sometimes armor!—and continue to wear; other than the identities in which others have contrived to recognize me.

Call this something, perhaps, an energy, a life force. It is more evanescent and yet, paradoxically, more lasting, and can seem more real than the combination of everything else that seems to constitute this “me.” My skeptical intellect is inclined to dismiss it as an illusion created by the false allure of desire or hope—the desire to elude death. Yet my mind, at once greater and infinitely more powerful than my intellect, insists on teasing me with the alternative.

So here is another of those priorities I’m seeking to establish. There is work to be done to sort out this conundrum, more watching, in meditation, and more fervent curiosity to be expended in the observation of this something.

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