Tuesday, October 08, 2013


          So much for the meaning of life. How about the meaning of death? Well, we know even less about death because, up to now, no one has died and lived to tell about it.

A scientific article claims in hedging terms that almost all animals that survive external hazards—such as being run over by a truck—eventually die from biological aging. That means getting chronologically old enough that bodily functions wear out or simply run down like an unwound clock. It’s a state of growing old called senescence.

          However, there is a light on the horizon. There may be an exception. It’s not a human form but a blob, a certain jellyfish which is thought to be immortal. Apparently when this creature’s parts die off, they reproduce themselves. Because theoretically the process can go on indefinitely, the jellyfish is biologically eternal.

          So far the process has been observed only in that particular species. No mice, no monkeys, no humans. So don’t hold your breath.

Many people around the world turn to religion to answer questions about death, especially when someone is facing his or her own mortality. Sadly, many of the world’s religions actually glamorize death, promising rewards in the afterlife. Such rewards include increased understanding of God and the universe, and even supernatural powers that were unavailable during one’s mortal life. Those sort of rewards make death more attractive than being alive.

Being a Buddha does not stop bad things from happening to you and does not make you happy all the time. It would be an inhuman feat to stay happy all the time. Being a Buddha means you accept things for what they really are.

          As Dogen wrote, and I quote:

“For Buddhism, the duality between life and death is only one instance of a more general problem, dualistic thinking. Why is dualistic thinking a problem? We differentiate between good and evil, success and failure, life and death and so forth because we want to keep the one and reject the other. But we cannot have one without the other because they are interdependent: having one half also maintains the other. Living a ‘pure’ life thus requires a preoccupation with impurity, and our hope for success will be proportional to our fear of failure. We discriminate between life and death in order to affirm one and deny the other, and, as we have seen, our tragedy lies in the paradox that these two objects are so interdependent. There is no life without death and, what we are more likely to overlook, there is no death without life. This means our problem is not death, but life-and-death.”

          End quote.

All the major world religions teach that life continues after death. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish beliefs can be generally classified as linear, whereas the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism can be classified as mainly cyclical.

          That brings us back to the notion of nirvana, a term that means “blowing out,” as with a candle. It describes the state of mind when people have extinguished (or removed), all the desires that promote selfish attitudes, and the idea that all things in life do not change.

The Buddha refused to speculate about things such as how the world came about, and what life-after-death is like. This is because he felt no one could ever know for sure how life started and what an after-life would be like. He was more concerned with the practical issue of living in the here and now.

When religions speak of heaven or paradise, they often understand it as a place where a person goes after they have died. However, Buddhists believe it is possible to dwell in nirvana when still alive.

          Buddhism promotes the belief that we do not have an eternal soul. There is nothing in our lives which is permanent.

From moment to moment we are changing. My thoughts are constantly as I speak. My body is changing and is being affected as I drink a cup of coffee or eat a grape. This constant process is called annica, a Pali and Sanskrit term that means impermance. A similar word is anatta. It refers to the idea that we have no permanent part of us that can be called a soul.

An interesting point: If Buddhists do not believe in a supreme being, and do not believe in a soul, why is Buddhism often classed as a religion?

Buddhism is not a religion. It is a way of living.

          Zen Buddhism does not deny the end of life. Zen masters and writers acknowledge death often by writing what is known as a death poem.

          Kozan Ichikyo is considered the second founder of Soto Zen in Japan. His
 death poem read:

Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

Onitsura wrote:

Flower in the stream.
Now too my lovely life must end,
Another flower to fall and fade away.

Basho’s death poem read:

On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields

Monday, October 07, 2013


This talk is titled Life and Death. It could be called Life or Death, but between the two there isn’t much choice. While you’re alive you can rely on both.

          One writer eases into the subject by saying “Perhaps you do not want to die.” Maybe that’s a clever lede, but it has little to do with the practicality of the matter. When it comes to being dead no one has much to say. On the other hand, in living, truly living, there is a lot to say and a lot that can be done.

          Life is a process of change. Who knows what death is?

          Philosophers, scientists, and religionists—not to mention the common human being—have wondered about life and death since the beginning of time and since their own beginning. Whatever the beginning is.

          This talk is centered mainly on the meaning of life, but not the purpose of life. Nor does it offer answers about either life or death. It suggests only some thoughts.

          Some of the most basic recorded notions of life go back to the early Greeks. A philosopher named Empedocles theorized that everything in the universe was a combination of earth, water, air, and fire. (Wasn’t that the name of an American rock band?) According to Empedocles, the various forms of life were caused by different arrangements and rearrangements of these elements.

Another Greek, Democritus, tried to explain that what makes a living thing was a soul. To Democritus soul was an eternal essence of a person. Later, Roman Catholics said human souls are immortal. That is, they never go away. On the other hand, the Indian philosophy called Jainism teaches that all biological organisms, as well as rivers and stones, have souls. This concept is called animism.

I’ve probably told you about the evening a Methodist minister friend of mine and I were camping out in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The Milky Way was so dazzling it was almost overpowering, and it led us into a discussion of cosmic issues. When I mentioned that I believed every object had an essence, a life force of its own, my friend snorted and said, “You are an animist.” For years later he would ask me if I had talked to any stones recently.

          The meaning of life has to do with the significance of existence. It poses such questions as “Why are we here?” and “What is life all about?” Of course there are many proposed answers depending on cultural and ideological backgrounds.

          A primary religious answer proposed by a grand doctrinal statement known as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which guided Protestants in 1648, stated unequivocally that man’s main purpose is to glorify God.

          That’s it?

The Baltimore Catechism, written in the late 1800s for Catholics, stated that God made you because he wanted you to love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in an after-life know as heaven.

          And now we come to Buddhism’s take on life. Buddhism does not talk about any meaning or purpose of existence. Instead it deals with the potential of human life to end distress through understanding cravings and conceptual attachments. It encourages what is called mindfulness, the embracing of the well-being of living.

          Buddhism speaks of living in a state of Nirvana. Nirvana is not heaven or paradise. Nirvana has nothing to do with an after-life but in being free from suffering and rebirth, and life right now.

          The subject of a popular debate asks the question “Is there any point to human existence?” Well, perhaps human existence in general is pointless, but to me my own existence means everything.

          A non-religious theory suggests that human existence occurred out of random chance in nature, just as dinosaurs and kiwi birds happened. Those creatures are no more, just as we humans will eventually be no more. Life has no meaning, but as humans we try to assign a purpose so we can rationalize our existence.

Because there is no point in life, that is exactly what makes life so special.

          Lots of reasons have been dreamed up to justify life. Reasons such as to learn as many things as possible, to seek wisdom and knowledge, to do good, to be responsible, and so on and on. They are good motives if you need motives.

          Monty Python said the meaning of life is to be nice to people, to avoid eating fat, to read a good book now and then, and to get some walking in.

          An Australian source said the meaning of life lies in knowing where it is, and to avoid stepping in it.

          Joseph Campbell said that each of us has meaning, and we bring that meaning to our life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.

          Herman Hesse, author of Siddhartha, wrote, “I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I've got.”