The consequences of a definite denial of the possibility of survival (so highly praised by Dr. Jones) are the persistence of the fear of death, in either an overt or repressed form. Either way there is a distortion of the psyche with resultant suffering, whatever the exact form it may take. Since such an attitude of denial is very widespread in many parts of the world today (and even officially prescribed in some places), these deleterious effects, on a very wide scale, are quite inevitable. In passing, in may be presumed that if in fact there were no survival, we would not have this built-in fear of death.
In present circumstances, the man who thinks, or wants to think otherwise, is in something of a dilemma. Assuming that he is not a psychic or drawn to spiritualism or the like, nor on the other hand an orthodox believer in one of the traditional faiths, he is probably plagued by doubts and has at best only a hazy notion of what it is he “believes.” He may indulge in many fanciful speculations. It is not at all clear to him on what basis he can judge of the possibly validity of these ideas. Under the impact of his surroundings, his belief, vague though it may be but perhaps based on some genuine intuition, is liable to be weak and fail him in times of crisis. In such a case, a resolute dismissal of all such ideas as “wishful thinking” may for the time being even bring a sense of relief (especially where his thoughts of the hereafter tend to arouse exaggerated fears of some awful retribution). All this must be admitted, and it is presumably for just such reasons that thinkers like Dr. Jones advocate the course they do. In fact, of course, it does not solve the real problem.
The social and personal drawbacks of the “Jonesian solution” do not end there. This negative attitude is the outcome of a materialistic view of the world which — though it is still held by many scientists — is in fact outmoded. Being in essence materialistic, it tends also to reduce our respect for human life. The traditional Christian view that “animals have no souls” is in fact semi-materialistic in this sense. Those who think that man is a special case tend all too easily to take the view (for which, unfortunately, there is Biblical support) that animals are totally subservient to him and can be treated as of no account — hence factory-farming and many other such horrors. The true materialist goes a step further and regards man himself as an “animal” in this sense. The extreme consequences of a radical application of this idea can be witnessed in many places at this day, and are often utterly appalling. But even when tempered with “liberal humanism” they can be pretty bad. Power over life and death is given to the medical profession and others to a degree which is sometimes quite irresponsible. Transplant surgery, to take an example, is based on a view of death which is entirely unethical by traditional standards, apart altogether from any “religious” considerations, and similar objections apply to demands for virtually indiscriminate abortion.
Death and the Buddhist
What, then, should be a truly Buddhist attitude towards death? Let us first note that in traditional Christianity, as for instance in the Roman Catholic Church (which has more wisdom — despite all reservations that may be made — than it is often given credit for!), great attention is paid to the dying. Special rites are performed, and every effort is made to help the dying person to pass on in what is considered to be a right frame of mind. To those with no belief in a hereafter, all such things are meaningless. To Buddhists and other non-Catholic “survivalists,” they may be open to certain criticisms, but the principle is wholly admirable. In Tibetan Buddhism especially, there are observances of a very similar nature, while in Theravada countries it is part of the duties of a vipassanaa bhikkhu to assist the dying. Of course, the frame of mind in which a Buddhist should die is not quite the same as that expected of an adherent of a theistic religion. But at least it is better to try to give the dying such understanding as one can, than to drug them into unconsciousness as an almost routine measure. That way they will pass on to another existence in much the same state of blindness and confusion with which they have gone through this life.
Let us note once again that such considerations can only be rejected as quite valueless if we are perfectly certain that there is no form of after-life — and even on that basis it might be very cruel to deprive many of the dying people of such comfort. Therefore the suggestion made in the humanist circles that hospital chaplains should be abolished can only be characterized as downright wicked. Some such chaplains may be pretty useless, but the majority can give the sick and dying at least some comfort. Ideally, of course, they should all be highly-trained bhikkhus!
However, when one is actually dying it is a bit late to begin thinking seriously about death. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought long before we hope it will happen! And besides, even for the young and strong, it can still come with unexpected suddenness. Mors certa — hora incerta, “Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.” To bear this in mind is for the Buddhist an important aspect of Right Understanding. And therefore the Buddhist practice of Meditation on Death — not very popular in the West — should be encouraged. Death for the Buddhist is not indeed the absolute end — but it does mean the breaking of all ties that bind us to our present existence, and therefore, the more detached we are from this world and its enticements, the more ready we shall be to die, and, incidentally, the further we shall get along the path that leads to the Deathless — for this is one of the names of Nibbaana: amata.m “the Deathless State.” Meanwhile, for those who have not got so far along the Path, death is inseverable from birth. Existence in the phenomenal world (sa.msaara) is continual birth-and-death. The one cannot be understood without the other, and cannot exist without the other.
We all fear death, but actually we should also fear the rebirth that follows. In practice, this does not always happen. Fear of rebirth is less strong than death. This is part of our usual short-sighted view (for those who do actually believe in rebirth), and the fact must be faced. Full Enlightenment will only be achieved when there is the will to transcend all forms of “rebirth” — even the pleasantest. Though as a first step then, acceptance of the fact of rebirth may help to overcome the fear of death, the attachment to rebirth itself must then also be gradually overcome.