Monday, January 11, 2010
Tree, Life Preserver, Bench, Snow, Rime, Mist
Actuarially speaking, I'm hovering somewhere near the halfway mark between birth and death. Of course, I could bust an aneurysm and croak tomorrow, or I could beat the odds and continue some way into the three digits, but either way, sooner or later, I will die.
I remember quite well the first time it occurred to me that death isn't something that just happens to other people. I was about fifteen, and I was undergoing the kind of existential crisis that, I believe, most teenagers go through. I had ditched my childhood faith some years back -- as in, I no longer believed that there was someone who looks like Corwin's avatar sitting on a cloud somewhere, deciding whether you were naughty or nice and handing out rewards or punishments accordingly. However, I was entirely, profoundly uncertain about the whole God business. What's more, I was in Nepal, surrounded by a culture with a profoundly different approach to the spiritual than what I was used to seeing.
Nothing much else to tell about that. I woke up one morning and realized "Fuck, I'm going to die some day." It was depressing. It was also an important station for the train of thought that eventually led me to conclude that there's probably no God, and ultimately to the position that I've held for most of my adult life, that the very definition of God is so slippery that the whole question about her existence doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
Then I pushed that thought away.
Eventually, some people died. Others got older. And the awareness of death slowly kept growing, from a little gnat at the edge of my consciousness to something that's just a little bit bigger every day. Scary shit.
We make up stories to make the scariness go away. Then we try to believe them. The Tibetans who first impressed me in Nepal are pretty big on death, and have a rather nice one. They say that we have (at least) three minds: the crude mind, which is what I'm using right now as I'm typing this post, the subtle mind, which is what I'm using when I'm dreaming, and the very subtle mind, which is what I'm using when I'm sleeping without dreams. They believe that when you die, your very subtle mind leaves your carcass and goes into an intermediate state called "bardo," wherefrom it will eventually be reborn in another body in one of the six worlds (understood either metaphorically or literally). (Unless you've become perfectly enlightened, that is, in which case it'll just enter parinirvana and exit the cycle.)
It's a cool story, but from where I'm at, it sounds just like another nice fiction to make death more palatable -- and it doesn't even seem to be particularly solidly grounded in the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy regarding the mind, never mind Mind. Not that I'm any kind of expert on that, of course.
Then there's the concepts of the four levels of enlightenment -- stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant, particularly important in Theravada Buddhism. The idea being that a stream-enterer has managed to conquer some of the defilements but still has a handful of lifetimes to go through to get completely clear of them, a once-returner is close enough that s/he'll only have one lifetime as a human to go, a non-returner is even closer and will be born as a deity in a Buddha realm, where s/he will attain enlightenment, and an arahant is someone who's conquered all the defilements and has no need to be reborn at all.
Those concepts make pretty good metaphors, though. They relate pretty well to our fear of death. Normal people hate the idea of dying, and would love the idea of an indefinite number of rounds around the block in progressively better states. A stream-enterer would be a bit like the young St. Augustine -- "Please, Lord, give me a chaste and moderate character, but not just yet." A once-returner and non-returner would already feel pretty comfortable about the idea of the end of their existence as an individual -- and an arahant is really, truly, genuinely cool with dying any time, as long as it doesn't cause anyone any undue inconvenience.
I have a quite a way to go before I'm anywhere close to any of that. The idea of dying scares me shitless, no matter what kind of spin I try to put on it. But I'm actually thinking about this fear "out loud" as it were, and that's gotta count for something.