Thursday, June 4, 2009

No Death, No Fear

I just finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh's No Death, No Fear.  This is the third book I've read by Thich Nhat Hanh.  I found the first two to be extremely beneficial and interesting.  I am sad to say that this one though didn't do much for me.   I think Nhat Hanh is one of the wisest men in the world. But, this teaching falls short, for me.

I have to confess that death has always been something I've been obsessively afraid of.  I'm sure it's all the teaching about Hell when I was a child. Kind of hard to be "in the moment" when at least once every seven days you're dragged off to a place where they remind you that you are just a heartbeat away from eternal torment.  As a result I've read a ton on near death experiences and everything I can get my hands on concerning what happens to us after we die  in an attempt to dispel my fear.  After coming to the conclusion that G-d is not the masochistic monster I was told G-d was, I no longer fear eternal torment.  But, the idea of being snuffed out like a flame ,while a lot better, is still not all that soothing.

Nhat Hanh's book is based largely on the Buddhist teaching of "non-self" or "no-self" as it is sometimes called.  This is a counterintuitive concept and one that I think is fairly difficult to grasp. In a nutshell, there is nothing we can point to that is our true "self".  We are not our bodies.  Our bodies change.  We are not our thoughts.  We can sit and observe our thoughts.  We are not our emotions.  We are not... (the list goes on and on).  Finally, the conclusions that Buddhists come to is nothing exists independent of everything else.   Essentially, we are collection of conditions.  There is no true "me".   Everything is "conditional".  The closely related concept of interdependence is that nothing exists independent of all the things that led to its existence.  Impermanence is the concept that we constantly change.  The "me" of this moment is different from the "me" of the last moment. This is the "you can't stand in the same river twice" concept.  If you take all of this out to its utmost conclusion, the conclusion is there is no real "self"- which seems to be the point behind Nhat Hanh's book.  There is no "coming and going".  We did not come from somewhere, we simply manifested when conditions were right.  We do not go anywhere, we simply cease to manifest when conditions are no longer right.  He uses a lot of analogies.  A cloud does not disappear, it becomes the rain, the rain becomes the flower.  When you "look closely" at a match you can see the potential flame in it.  When you strike the match, you create the conditions that produce the flame, the flame is not "born", therefore the flame does not "die". Comparing me to a cloud or a flame is an analogy that has a lot of problems for me.  A cloud is not self-aware.  A flame does not know it burns.

Nhat Hanh talks about how we are continuations of our ancestors, both physical and spiritual (those who have had influence on us).  He speaks of how he will continue in his disciples.  We will continue in our children.  How the ashes of those who die and have been cremated become part of the earth and the flowers.  This is all very lovely and poetic and in so many ways true.   But, I simply cannot get over the notion that there is a true "me".  I may not be able to put a finger on it.  But, I think even if I could convince myself there is no "me" the idea that I don't truly exist doesn't give me a great deal of comfort.
I did find a lot in the book to be beneficial.  The concepts of interdependence, non-self and impermanence are very, very useful- when taken so far.  Understanding that we are all products of the conditions in which we find ourselves can help lead to true compassion, understanding and forgiveness. Understanding that my actions don't impact only me is a crucial teaching.  Understanding that I am not my body or my thoughts has been a very powerful tool in helping me deal with a lot of issues.  But, convincing myself that I simply don't really exist to ease the fear of not existing in the future doesn't really work for me.  All in all, I think the book is a worthwhile read.  And, I'm sure the teachings have worked for a whole bunch of Buddhists.

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okiedragon said...

As I have aged, death seems like the natural next step and sometimes, I almost look forward to leaving this planet - I don't mean to sound depressed or dysfunctional - I am just done. It is more like I miss home. I have tired of the craziness of earth, I feel like I am living outside of reality and yet I am fully aware of this life. My joy comes in nature - materialism almost repulses me and I feel like time is more precious than having or doing.

Since I do not believe in hell and haven't for 27 years, that fear is so dead. I've told my husband and daughter to make sure any working parts are donated if usable but the remainder of my body is to be cremated and tilled into the garden - I want it to become the tomatoes - earthwise but my soul will continue to be me for a while - just as I believe you will remain you. Yes, we are all whatever souls are made of, energy, magic, spirit and I have the belief that after we pass, we retain who we have been and upon knowing truth (not this earthy stuff but REAL truth, God's truth) we will desire to make right all our wrongs. I figure apologies will take a while as each soul waits to make apologies and amends with all lives we have touched. I still imagine Hitler anxiously awaiting to apologize to each black, Jew and gypsy he harmed including descendents. I feel a need to clear the air for my own errors.

Maybe eventually all our souls become a conglomerate inside of the wholeness of God - then the part of me that bumps into the part of you may eventually become the part of all as Hahn states but I think we must become the perfection and eternity will give us individuals plenty of time to cleanse ourselves of .... ourselves and who knows - I just don't fear it.

Brian said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Okiedragon. I don't fear it as much as I used to. I guess it's the natural human fear of the unknown more than anything. Sometimes I kind of look forward to the next adventure myself, even though I don't know what it will be. I do trust that it will be nothing bad.


karen said...

Interesting, Brian. I get what the author is talking's very quantum physics, isn't it? I don't relish the thought of just drifting off as non-conscious energy, either. We have thought processes; we are separate, but a part of the whole body. I think the bible tells us this when it talks about the body. Each part might be part of a larger "whole" but each part has a role and a 'knowledge' of its function or what it's doing.
Having had an out of body experience, I don't fear death anymore....I just ain't ready to go.

Brian said...


Mostly what the author references, at least in his analogies is "conservation of energy and matter". Not even quantum physics. Just normal old physics. But, as you point out, these things continue as undifferentiated energy or matter. The cloud is not in the piece of paper that was produced from the rain and the tree. The molecules that were in the cloud are now in the paper and the stream and... He also talks about our "energy" continuing in the influences we have on others.

My fear of death is no longer a terror. That's progress. But, I'm not ready to go yet, either. This is a pretty good ride.

Thanks for sharing your thought. Very helpful to me.