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Thread: An agnostic position towards death

  1. #1

    An agnostic position towards death

    This is an excerpt from an article by Stephen Bachelor:

    An agnostic position toward death seems more compatible with an authentic spiritual attitude. In many cases we find ourselves drawn to doctrines such as rebirth not out of a genuine existential insight or concern, but rather out of a need for consolation. At the level of popular religion, Buddhism, as much as any other tradition, has provided such consolation. Yet, if we take an agnostic position, we will find ourselves facing death as a moment of our existential encounter with life. The fundamental spiritual confrontation of human life involves the realization that we have been thrown into this world, without any choice, only to look forward to the prospect of being expelled at death. The sheer sense of bafflement and perplexity at this situation is crucial to spiritual awareness. To opt for a comforting, even a discomforting, explanation of what brought us here or what awaits us after death severely limits that very rare sense of mystery with which religion is essentially concerned. We thereby obscure with consoling man-made concepts that which most deeply terrifies and fascinates us.

    Nonetheless, among otherwise critical and discerning practitioners of the dharma, the subject of rebirth is often treated as out of bounds for honest and penetrating inquiry. While Tibetan Buddhists tend dogmatically to assert it, practitioners of Zen and vipassana tend either to overlook it or explain it away as a metaphor. Both these attitudes can equally serve to sidestep the awesome encounter with the "Great Matter of Birth and Death." Failure to summon forth the courage to risk a nondogmatic and non-evasive stance on this central issue is also liable to blur one's ethical vision. For if my actions in the world are to stem from an authentic encounter with what is most vital and mysterious in life, then they surely need to be unclouded by either dogma or prevarication. A truly agnostic position is not an excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a powerful catalyst for action; since in shifting concern away from a hypothetical future life to the dilemmas of the present, it demands precisely the kind of compassion-centered ethic advocated by Shantideva.

    A genuine spiritual attitude implies the courage to confront what it means to be human. All the pictures I entertain of heaven and hell, or cycles of rebirth, merely serve to replace the overwhelming reality of the unknown with what is known and acceptable. In this sense, to cling to the idea of rebirth, rather than treating it as a useful symbol or hypothesis, can be spiritually suffocating. If we are to take Buddhism as an ongoing existential encounter with our life here and now, then we will only gain by releasing our grip on such notions.

    Any thoughts?


  2. #2
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
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    Mar 2017
    Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.A.
    Hi, Aloka. Thanks for the excerpt.

    First, let me say that I am attracted to and appreciate Bachelor's thinking towards death and mankind's religious rationalizations regarding death. I am particularly fascinated by the phrase "remain hidden from the prince of death" found in the suttas: AN 4.184 PTS: A ii 173
    Abhaya Sutta: Fearless as translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

    ...which discusses those who live in fear of death vs. those who have though practice come to a point where they no longer fear death. I highly recommend this as a primary (fundamental) read for all Buddhists, but especially for those who are currently enduring illnesses, which potentially bring them to death's door (interesting metaphor).

  3. #3
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    Mar 2017
    Agnosticism, by definition, means you give up on letting go of things, a central tenet of my particular take on Buddhism at least. The alternative for those who need something to cling to right now is to understand that these ideas are just a raft, to be let go of when you no longer need them.

  4. #4
    Previous Member
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    Sep 2018
    I haven't found that Zen teachers overlook reincarnation or refer to it as a metaphor, but can certainly understand why people might think that is so if they don't understand the nuances of Zen. Oddly enough, I find Zen to have a deeply spiritual side to it, but it's in a form that most people aren't used to. There are no beliefs per se on this subject, nor on any other subject for that matter, as Zen isn't a belief based practice, but one based on experience. There is a time when a lot of practitioners have an experience of what may be called the unborn, or what is often referred to as the answer to the me your original face. The one you had before you were born.

    It's not necessary to have heard this koan to experience this state of the unborn, and in a lot of ways it's probably better to have never heard of it. As we are all unborn, then we do not "die" (I'm referring to our original consciousness before ego), so there is nothing to really come back. We have always been here, and we will always be here, but not in this form, as all things are impermanent. In fact, the truth of impermanence, which is a central tenant of Buddhism, would preclude a literal belief in rebirth, as again, there is nothing to be reborn since all things eventually go away, unless one brings yet another belief into it, that of karma. Cause and effect are demonstrable, but karma requires a belief. My Zen teacher is fond of saying that reincarnation is a fact. We reincarnate every moment of our lives. From moment to moment we are not the same person. If we are if we are stuck in our head, then forget it, that state is not "us" anyway, it's the state of ego. But when we drop that, it's a whole new ball game. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up to enlightenment

    The Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn had an interesting way of looking at this, and his way was perhaps closer to a variation of Tibetan thought than Zen. In his book The Compass of Zen, he stated that millions and millions of sentient animals were murdered every year for food, so he asked himself the question..... where does their consciousness go? He felt that if you looked closely at people, you would see that some are a fox, some are a rabbit, some are birdlike, some are wise like an owl, etc. To him, this showed that animals were being reborn into human bodies, but with their previous animal characteristics.

    I personally don't have a horse in this race. My thinking is that if reincarnation happens but you don't remember your previous life, then it essentially really didn't happen. I would not rule out coming back as a rock, or a sparrow, or something like that either. But not ruling something out doesn't mean I think it's true. While I am not anxious to die, what happens then is something that all of us will find out.
    Last edited by steve marino; 18 Sep 18 at 23:03.

  5. #5
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
    London UK
    Stephen Bachelor said
    All the pictures I entertain of heaven and hell, or cycles of rebirth, merely serve to replace the overwhelming reality of the unknown with what is known and acceptable.
    Of course any artist or storyteller will represent life outside this earthly plane in terms of what is familiar. (1) It gets some kind of meaning across and (2) there's nothing to base an alternative representation upon.

    This applies not only to artists and storytellers, but also to those who promote a vision of former lives or post-death activity in a spiritual sense, i.e. religious teachers.

    I think that Bachelor is missing something in describing the unknown as having "overwhelming reality".

    This is what he misses: Only the present moment exists. There is only now.

    Past life, previous lives, life-after-death, none of these have any reality at all. The thought of the unknown may well be overwhelming to Bachelor, but 'overwhelming' applies only to his thinking, not to the reality of the unknown.

    My conclusion is not agnostic but firm. Past lives and reincarnation are imaginary. We exist solely in the present moment. Time and memory are convenient concepts but they have no existence outside of our consciousness.

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