I recently stumbled upon a very interesting, very rigorously argued blog post on the subject of karma and rebirth, the two articles of faith that are, to my mind, the bare essential beliefs of any Buddhist. If I had to explain to someone who knew nothing about Buddhism what Buddhists believe–that is, what they accept on faith–it would be these two ideas. There are other ideas that are more central to the teachings of the Buddha (namely, the Four Noble Truths), but they do not need to be taken on faith. Karma and rebirth, on the other hand, are not demonstrably true, even though the Buddhist texts suggest that the Buddha and his followers regarded them as such.
My own thought on beliefs in general is that I try to have as few as possible. I don’t mean that I apply rigorous standards when evaluating the validity of every thought that passes through my mind. I’m too lazy for that, and I’m sure it would overload my brain if I actually went out of my way to examine even a fraction of the many assumptions that I more or less go along with in the course of the day or even through life. I just mean that I like to remain open to the possibility that I’ve got something wrong, rather than doubling down on an error just to save face or maintain my shaky mental equilibrium. After all, the Second Noble Truth states that clinging is the cause of suffering (the First Noble Truth), and that is something that experience strongly suggests is true.
I read through Jayarava’s impressive argument with some degree of comprehension, but I have to admit that much of it was more than I could take in. In any case, the title of the post is clear enough about his conclusions: “There is No Life After Death, Sorry.” He also appears on a couple of podcasts that I haven’t listened to yet, here and here, where I think he probably covers much of the same ground, so I may revisit his arguments later to decide if they really are as convincing and conclusive as they seem. I’ll just note for now that he appends to his argument this long quote from Galen Strawson, who I encountered recently in a podcast on narrativity and who advocates panpsychism as way of explaining the relationship between mind and matter:
“At the root of the muddle [about consciousness] lies an inability to overcome the Very Large Mistake so clearly identified by Eddington and others in the 1920s—not to mention the lovely Irishman John Toland in 1704, Anthony Collins in 1707, Hume in 1739, Priestley in 1777–8, and many others. The mistake is to think we know enough about the nature of physical reality to have any good reason to think that consciousness can’t be physical. [My emphasis] It seems to be stamped so deeply in us, by our everyday experience of matter as lumpen stuff, that not even appreciation of the extraordinary facts of current physics can weaken its hold.” – Galen Strawson. ‘The consciousness myth (revised).’ The Times Literary Supplement 27 February 2015 (no. 5839 pp. 14–15)
On the subject of life after death, my standard response has been somewhat tongue in cheek. Of course there’s life after death, I might say–after I’m dead, there will still be billions of lives (and that’s just counting humans). I know it sounds pretty flippant, and in a way it is, since it is basically a way of saying that I don’t really want to get drawn into something that I can’t possibly discuss in a very meaningful way with the level of knowledge that I possess. But I think it also says something that is worth remembering–that “life” is not just our own personal existence on this planet, or even the sum total of all of our individual lives, but something else infinitely harder to fathom than whatever it is we choose tell ourselves about our fates in the hereafter.
And now I come to the occasion for these thoughts: It was three years ago today that my father died after an 18-year battle with prostate cancer, and two years ago that my wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which claimed her life five months later.
Over the past few days, I’ve resumed a task that I began and abandoned last year: migrating most of my Facebook posts (particularly those relating to Eid) to this blog. I stopped last year when I reached a couple of long posts that I wrote in early 2016, which were intended to relaunch this blog after nearly a decade of neglect. I have now gotten as far as March 2016, but it seems unlikely I’ll be able to continue today, as Facebook appears to be down. I decided to do this because 2016 was the last full year of Eid’s life, and an especially hard one for her.
Not long ago, I also visited her Facebook page, to see if there were any photos there of her or us together that I could share with my mother. What I found were reminders of Eid’s acute sense of mortality, which I’m sure she owed to her father’s death when she was just eight years old, and which came to the fore again while I was with my father three years ago, as these two posts (one shared a few days after Dad’s death, the other a week after she received her diagnosis) show:
Eid was a Buddhist, but I don’t recall ever hearing her talk about rebirth. I do remember, on one or two occasions when she said that she would be better off dead (during times when she found life particularly difficult, long before her health became a serious issue), reminding her that as a Buddhist, she couldn’t take any comfort in the idea of death because death was not the end of life. From this point of view, I’ve tended to see the belief in rebirth as a good thing, as a way of discouraging thoughts of “taking the easy way out“. (It was suicide that claimed Eid’s father’s life, and her fear that her brother might kill himself after he split up with the mother of his young daughter added immensely to the stress that she went through in the last year of her life.)
From another perspective, however, I find myself in agreement with the sentiment expressed here by Jayarava:
The end of the Myth of the Afterlife is a beautiful moment for humans. We are growing up. We are finally seeing things as they really are. We have to deal with things now. We are responsible for what is happening. It means the onus is on humans to both reward and punish more assiduously, and to think very carefully about what constitutes good and evil, because the universe is not going to square things up after death
One danger of believing in karma and rebirth is that it allows you to think that the universe will sort out all of the injustices we and others suffer, so there’s no need to work hard to seek redress for past wrongs–something that I think afflicts the mindsets of many in Burma, for instance, where not nearly enough is being done to hold the perpetrators of past atrocities to account.
To return to Eid and my memories of this day two years ago, I can remember crying when she told me the bad news over the phone. It wasn’t even that I feared for her life; I didn’t imagine, even for a moment, that it would end so soon. What shook me to the core was the thought that it was so brutally unfair for this to happen just two weeks before we were due to return to Canada to spend Christmas and our tenth anniversary together with my family. But then I got a grip and reminded myself: life isn’t fair. I immediately informed my employer that I would have to leave one week earlier than planned, cancelled our flights to Toronto, and bought a bus ticket from Chiang Mai to Pattaya, where her brother picked me up and took me to her hometown. There was a lot to be done, until there was nothing left I could do except stay with her until the end.
So now, more than a year and a half after her passing, I am still trying to come to terms with life after death. I am mourning my loss, yes, but also trying to get on with my life. It doesn’t matter to me whether I have one life to live or many–what matters is whether I am fully alive at this moment. It sounds simple enough, but as I found even while I was with Eid in the hospital, it is extraordinarily difficult to remain fully present at all times.
There is no answer to this problem except further practice, and that takes a willingness to learn from certain inescapable realities:
Finally, I will share these words offered by Eid herself, to whomever among her loved ones cared, or dared, to pay attention: