The Fear of Death is not an instinct: it is a reaction of the animal who is conscious enough to become aware of himself and his inevitable fate; so it is something we have learned. But exactly what is it we have learned? Is the dilemma of life-confronting-death an objective fact we just see, or is this, too, something constructed and projected, more like an unconscious game that each of us is playing with himself? According to Buddhism, life-against-death is a delusive way of thinking it is dualistic: the denial of being dead is how the Ego affirms itself as being alive; so it is the act by which the Ego constitutes itself. To be self-conscious is to be conscious of oneself, to grasp oneself, as being alive. (Despite all their struggles to keep from dying, other animals do not dread death, because they are not aware of themselves as alive.) Then death terror is not something the Ego has, it is what the Ego IS. This fits well with the Buddhist claim that the Ego-self is not a thing, not what I really am, but a mental construction. Anxiety is generated by identifying with this fiction for the simple reason that I do not know and cannot know what this thing that I supposedly am is. This is why the "shadow" of the sense-of-self will inevitable be a sense-of-lack.
Now we see what the Ego is composed of: death terror. The irony here is that the death terror which is the Ego defends only itself. Everything outside is what the ego IS terrified of, but what is inside? Fear is the inside, and that makes everything else the outside. The tragicomedy is that the self-protection this generates is self-defeating, for the barriers we erect to defend the Ego also reinforce our suspicion that there is indeed something lacking in our innermost sanctum which needs protection. And if it turns out that what is innermost is so weak because it is...nothing, then no amount of protection will ever be felt to be enough and we shall end up trying to extend our control to the very bounds of the universe.
If, however, the Ego is constituted by such a dualistic way of thinking, it means that an Ego can die without physical death and without consciousness coming to an end.
What makes this more than idle speculation is that there is ample testimony to the possibility of such Ego death:
- No one gets so much of God as the man who is completely dead. (St. Gregory)
- The Kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead. (Eckhart)
- We are in a world of generation and death,
and this world we must cast off. (William Blake)
- Your glory lies where you cease to exist. (Ramana Maharshi):
"All of a sudden, he was seized by a chill of Fear. He felt he was almost dying by an all encompassing Fear of Death. Trying to prevent this feeling from weakening him, he began to think of what he should do. He said to himself:
"'Now death is approaching. I am dying. What is death? This body gets lost.'
"Then he held his breath completely, closed his lips and eyes, lay down as one dead, and began to ponder:
"'Now my body is dead. They will carry this body, motionless, to the cremation ground and burn it. But do I really die with this body? Am I merely this body? My body is now motionless. But still I know my name. I remember my parents, uncles, brothers, friends and all others. It means that I have a knowledge of my individuality. If so, the "I" in me is not merely my body; it is a deathless spirit.'
"Thus, as in a flash, a new realization came to Venkataramana. His thoughts may seem boyish fancy. But one thing must be remembered. Usually a man wins God realization by performing tapas for years and years, without food and sleep; he subjects the body to great suffering. But Venkataramana won the highest knowledge without all these. The fear of death left him. Venkataramana became the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi."
NOTE: It should be brought to the attention of the reader that in 1912, at age 32, fifteen years after Sri Ramana's initial death experience, he was once again confronted by death, in his little known Second Death Experience.
A moving example of death and resurrection is of course one of the sources of Western culture; but examples are found in many religious traditions. The problem is demythologizing these myths, extracting the core of psychological and spiritual truth from the accretions of dogma and superstition that all too often obscure their meaning, in order for that truth to spring to life again within our myth--the technical, objectifying language of modern science (in this instance, psychology). Blake's quotation (from The Vision of the Last Judgment) points the way because it implies that we are not seeing clearly but projecting when we perceive the world in terms of the dualistic categories of birth and death.
Precisely that claim is central to the Buddhist tradition. "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?" bemoaned Ionesco; the answer is in the anaatman "no self" doctrine, according to which we cannot die because we were never born. Anaatma is the "middle way" between the extremes of eternalism (the self survives death) and annihilationism (the self is destroyed at death). Buddhism resolves the problem of life-and-death by deconstructing it. The evaporation of this dualistic way of thinking reveals what is prior to it. There are many names for this "prior," but it is surely significant that one of the most common is "the unborn."
In the Pali Canon, what are perhaps the two most famous descriptions of Nirvna both refer to "the unborn," where "neither this world nor the other, nor coming, going, or standing, neither death nor birth, nor sense objects are to be found."
"There is, O monks, an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an unconditioned; if, O monks, there were not here this unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, there would not here be an escape from the born, the become, the made, the conditioned. But because there is an unborn,...therefore there is an escape from the born...."
Philosophy east and west
Volume 40, No.2 (April 1990)
(C) by University of Hawaii Press
David Loy is a tenured professor in the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University in Chagasaki, Japan. Dr. Loy has also served as a Senior Tutor in the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore from 1978 to 1984. Dr. Loy received his BA degree from Carleton College in Northfield , Minnesota, and his MA in Asian Philosophy from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Hawaii. Dr. Loy then pursued his PhD in Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. Dr. Loy undertook a Zen journey in 1971 that included attending a sesshin with Yamada Koun-Roshi in Honolulu, Hawaii. Dr. Loy then moved to Kamakura in 1985 to continue Koan study, and in 1987 he completed the formal course of Koan study and was recognized as a Zen sensei. His most recent publications include A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (2002) and The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory forthcoming in June 2003. Dr. Loy also sits on the editorial boards of Cultural Dynamics, Worldviews, Contemporary Buddhism, and the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.