Cover of 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.