Buddhism and Death

The Great Unmentionable

It is sometimes said that Death today has replaced Sex as “The Great Unmentionable,” and certainly it is, for most people, an uncomfortable subject which they do not care to think about overmuch. Yet if there is one thing that is certain in life it is that we shall all die, sooner or later. There was once a creed which declared: “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” and it had great appeal — but all those who first heard it proclaimed are now dead. So we all have to face death, whether we like it or not. And we all know it, however we may try to forget the fact. Let us, then, at least for a while, stop trying to forget it and look death straight in the face. It is, of course, perfectly true that we can be too preoccupied with death. There are those who are eaten up with fear of death so that they hardly have any energy or zest for living, and there are some for whom mortality and all its accompaniments and trappings have a peculiar fascination. Facing death realistically does not mean being obsessed by it. Here, as in other respects, Buddhism teaches a Middle Way. For those who have an unhealthy preoccupation with the subject, it can teach a saner and more balanced concern; for those who seek at all costs to avoid thinking about it, it can likewise show a reasonable approach. Fear of death is an unwholesome state of mind, and for this, as for other unwholesome states of mind, Buddhism can show a remedy. In the West today, there are many different attitudes to death and a large number of people are probably quite bewildered by it, not knowing what to believe. But two main ones predominate: the Traditional Christian view and the Modern Secular view. The Traditional Christian view (which has many variations of detail) asserts the reality of an after-life, which the Modern Secular view denies or at the very least calls strongly into question.

The Traditional Christian View

This asserts that man has an immortal soul, created by God. After death a man will, in some shape or form, receive the reward or punishment for his deeds on earth. In short, the good will go to heaven and the wicked to hell. Heaven and hell are everlasting. Of course, many Christians — even fairly “traditional” ones — are more or less uneasy about this, especially about the eternity of hell, but this doctrine is still taught by many Churches in some form, with whatever loopholes or reservations. It should also be noted that on this view only man has an “immortal soul,” and that (non-human) “animals” simply perish at death.

A few Christians, especially in England, dislike this and hope to be reunited with their pets in another world. Inquiry would probably show that this is a genuine stumbling-block for more people than might have been supposed.