Nothingness is the Goal: Coming to Terms with Death

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I had what I think is called an existential crisis. The fact of your own mortality knocks you off your feet. My life wasn’t in danger, don’t worry. I just stumbled into the epiphany that everyone dies and that I would die. Every day was a day closer to death. Even if immortality was invented in my lifetime, the universe’s death would be mine as well.

The realisation incapacitated me for a week. I could do nothing, knowing everything was heading towards zero. I could not distract myself with entertainment. When I looked at my bookcase or blurays, I saw the dead or the soon to be dead, and I saw my own death. Whenever I looked at people, at toddlers, I thought, “These people will die.”

When I thought of how long humans have existed, these lines of Dante finally became real to me:

And after it there came so long a train

Of people, that I ne’er would have believed

That ever Death so many had undone.

(Inf. III, trans. Longfellow)

And death would undo me.

It’s strange to call this an epiphany. Everyone dies and everyone knows they themselves will die. (I’ve known since I was four, when my mother accidently let that fact slip.) And yet there are different levels of knowing. The lowest level is indistinguishable from ignorance.

The traditional story of the Buddha relates that his father hid the evils of the world from him. The yet-to-be-Buddha was sheltered from the facts of illness, old age, and death. One day, however, when riding through the city, he saw an ill man, an old man, and a dead man. And then he knew illness, old age and death applied to him as well.

This story does not appear in the Pali canon (the earliest Buddhist scriptures), but there is a clear parallel: Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.39.

None of us can relate to the Buddha being hidden away from death. No one can be that sheltered. But most of us can relate somewhat to what the Buddha says here:

“Again, it occurred to me: ‘An uninstructed worldling, though himself subject to death, not exempt from death, feels repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when he sees another who has died, overlooking his own situation. Now I too am subject to death and am not exempt from death. Such being the case, if I were to feel repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when seeing another who has died, that would not be proper for me.’ When I reflected thus, my intoxication with life was completely abandoned.

(AN 3.39)

We may not be able to relate to the Buddha, who abandoned his “intoxication with life”, but we can relate to the “uninstructed wordling” who is “disgusted when he sees another who has died, overlooking his own situation.”

The Buddha’s first awakening was not learning that death exists, nor even realising that death applied to him. Everyone knows this. Few feel it. The Buddha’s awakening was truly grasping the fact that he would grow ill, grow old, and die.

I must admit I am an uninstructed worldling, and am happy to be one, in a hedonistic way. During my weeklong epiphany, I wanted nothing more than to forget the unavoidable fact that I would die.

I have forgotten to some extent. Even now, however, I cannot look at anything from before 1950 without thinking, “These people are dead or dying.”

When the Buddha talks about death, he does not mean it like I mean it. When I think of death, I think of nothingness. The Buddha quite plainly does not take nothingness for granted:

An uninstructed worldling, intoxicated with life, engages in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. With the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the plane of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell. (AN 3.39)

He believes in reincarnation.

There is something odd in comparing this approach to death and the Christian one. I am not a Christian, nor ever was, but I was raised in culture where Christianity is the dominant spiritualism. This inevitably affects how I think of death.

Death seems like nothingness, so we try to escape nothingness by imagining a continuance, a heaven and hell.

I wish I could believe this. Or, rather, I wish it were true. As I do not believe it true, any attempt to make myself believe it would be cold comfort. For this same reason, I do not believe in reincarnation, though I wish it were true.

Even thousands of years ago there were Indian theologians who wished reincarnation wasn’t true. Death seems like continuance, so they tried to escape continuance by imagining nothingness.

In lecture ten of the Great Courses series Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, Mark W. Muesse says that the mainstream view in reincarnation, that you would flow up and down the caste-system and hierarchy of life based on your karma, became soul-crushing.

Even if you were reborn as a rich man, you were still prey to uncertainty, suffering, and destruction. Maybe you’d amass enough good karma to become a celestial — but celestials, too, die. Soon you’d be back to realm of the suffering.

The only way to avoid this unending suffering was to produce no karma, to end the cycle of rebirth. This is the approach the Buddha championed.

Of all spiritual approaches to death, this is one of the few that helps me. It helps me because it takes as its goal what I take as my birthright: nothingness.

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Random things are posted here, from an unusual attic.

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Robin Berry

Robin Berry

Random things are posted here, from an unusual attic.

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