Last night I saw Chuck Klosterman speak at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. During his talk he read a piece from But What If We’re Wrong? (which I reviewed in my last entry) that illustrates my point about how he — like lots of people these days — voices some of the same ideas contained in Buddhism.
Here is his very Buddhist view on life after death:
“When considered rationally, there is no justification for believing that anything happens to anyone upon the moment of his or her death. There is no reasonable counter to the prospect of nothingness. Any anecdotal story about ‘floating toward a white light’ or Shirley MacLaine’s past life on Atlantis or the details in Heaven Is for Real are automatically (and justifiably) dismissed by any secular intellectual. Yet this wholly logical position discounts the overwhelming likelihood that we currently don’t know something critical about the experience of life, much less the ultimate conclusion to that experience. There are so many things we don’t know about energy, or the way energy is transferred, or why energy (which can’t be created or destroyed) exists at all. We can’t truly conceive the conditions of a multidimensional reality, even though we’re (probably) already living inside one. We have a limited understanding of consciousness. We have a limited understanding of time, and of the perception of time, and of the possibility that all time is happening at once. So while it seems unrealistic to seriously consider the prospect of life after death, it seems equally naïve to assume that our contemporary understanding of this phenomenon is remotely complete.
…We must start from the premise that—in all likelihood—we are already wrong. And not ‘wrong’ in the sense that we are examining questions and coming to incorrect conclusions, because most of our conclusions are reasoned and coherent. The problem is with the questions themselves.”
This sounds very much like the Buddha’s answer to questions of life after death. The Buddha either remained silent when asked about such matters, or said, “The question does not fit the case.” It depends on which accounts you read.
Klosterman sounds like he’s providing a postmodern expansion on Buddha’s answer — the kind of thing you might find in one of my books. In fact, I believe I’ve said pretty much the same stuff on a few occasions when I’ve attempted to address this topic.
Often when I say things like, “Buddhism doesn’t accept the idea of life after death” or “Dogen didn’t teach reincarnation” there will be an outcry from certain parts of the Buddhist blogosphere that basically amounts to, “Says you!”
This is especially true when it comes to American Buddhists. Lots of folks in my home country got into Buddhism specifically because of its teachings about reincarnation, particularly those espoused by Tibetan Buddhists. They do not like anyone questioning their beliefs.
But when Americans conceive of things like reincarnation, they are generally thinking about something vastly different even from the Tibetan Buddhist ideas on the subject. When it comes to Zen Buddhism, there really isn’t anything very much like what most Americans think of when they think of reincarnation.
As Klosterman says, “The problem is with the questions themselves.”
The minute you start asking about life after death, you are assuming that the standard view most of us hold about what life is and what death is are correct. You are asking whether something like the life you imagine you are living now will continue after you die.
Buddha sat with this problem for a long, long time. But, unlike most Western philosophers, he didn’t try to think his way through it. Instead he quietly observed life as it happened to him.
He realized that his thoughts were just a part of what was going on, and not even a very significant part. So he chose not to focus on them. He let his brain do whatever it needed to do, but he didn’t try to use his thinking mind to determine the answer to his questions about the nature of life. This approach probably sounds whacky to lots of us here in the Wild, Wild West. But that’s what he did.
After working this way for a while, certain aspects of life started to become much clearer than before. He started to see that the way his thoughts had been framing his experiences were not right. The framework of thought had some usefulness in terms of communicating to his fellow human beings, but that’s about as far as it went. He saw that it was a mistake to habitually believe his own thoughts.
As anyone who has ever tried to give up cigarettes or alcohol or even coffee can tell you, habits are hard things to break. Our addiction to believing our own thoughts is more powerful and more difficult to overcome than being addicted to heroin or any other addictive substance you can name. So this process was not very easy for our man Buddha, nor has it been easy for anyone else who has ever attempted it.
But, like kicking cigarettes, alcohol, or heroin, the rewards of overcoming our thought-addiction are quite literally inconceivably great. You cannot possibly imagine how much more there is to life once you can find a way to stop unconditionally believing your own mind. It is literally beyond imagination.
It’s like you’ve been high/drunk all your life and then you get sober. You’ve been drunk so long you don’t even know what sobriety is. Then you taste it and realize it’s a hell of a lot better. You see that being drunk on your own thoughts was what made you believe life was miserable when actually it wasn’t miserable at all.
So anyway, when I say I don’t believe in life after death or I don’t believe in reincarnation, I’m not necessarily saying I side with the so-called “rationalists” in our society who say, “there is no justification for believing that anything happens to anyone upon the moment of his or her death. There is no reasonable counter to the prospect of nothingness.”
I agree that when you ask a question like, “Is there life after death?” or “Do we reincarnate?” the only reasonable answer is “No.” If there were any other reasonable answer to those questions, we’d have found it by now. The overwhelming evidence is that nothing happens after we die.
On the other hand, I see a lot of evidence that these kinds of questions themselves are coming at the problem in completely the wrong way. As Klosterman points out, our current commonly held understanding of things like energy, consciousness and, particularly, time are underdeveloped and deeply flawed.
Science may eventually begin to get a grip on the right understanding of these things. But there are ways other than through scientific analysis and mathematical computation for individual human beings to find their way to a better understanding of matters like this.
It’s too bad so many Buddhists have ruined Buddhism. You can really learn a lot by following the examples folks like Buddha and Dogen left for us.
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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!
July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA
July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing
July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop
September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University
October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 8-9, 2016 Berlin, Germany 2-Day Retreat
October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands
October 12, 2016 Brussels, Belgium
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 18, 2016 Salzburg, Austria
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
MORE EUROPEAN DATES TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON!
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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