Death Anxiety and Buddhists

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By Kwan-Hang Sin, Ph.D.

Sigmund Freud defined death drive as one of the two basic instincts out of his research on anxiety. Since then, research on death anxiety has received great interest from psychologists, and it was found that death anxiety was associated with psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, obsession-compulsion, social anxiety, somatization, etc. The significance of its impact, however, was found moderated by pleasant and unpleasant beliefs about life-after-death. Death anxiety comprised of the fear of the unknown, fear of suffering, fear of loneliness, and fear of personal extinction. They lead to an increased level of materialism, due to the pursuit of symbolic immortality, and ironically resulting in a much lower satisfaction of life. In short, mental health was found greatly affected by what people believe on life-after-death.

All major religions in the world have an answer for their followers in terms of what would happen after-life. Christians believed in an eternal soul ascending to paradise or condemned to hell upon death. Hindus believed in an eternal ātman that reincarnates in saṃsāra forever. In Buddhism, the Blessed One explicitly said that “death is stressful” (SN 56.11). However, he did not like us to speculate on life after death. When Vacchagotta asked the Blessed One on the existence of “self” (soul), the Blessed One was “silent” (SN 44.10). What the Blessed One advocated was a middle path between eternalism or annihilationism. In Kaccayanagotta Sutta, the Buddha explicitly stated,

“Everything exists”: That is one extreme. “Everything doesn’t exist”: That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle… (SN 12.15)

However, the drive of death anxiety was so significant that Buddhist followers were always swayed towards eternalism, which could arguably lower death anxiety by a large extent.

Reincarnation in Early Buddhism

In order to understand how death anxiety might have affected the development of Buddhism, it would be important to understand the beliefs on life after death during and after the time of Siddhartha Bodhisattva.

Since the Aryans settlement at around 1200 B.C.E., Brahmanism (and its later form, Hinduism) had become the mainstream religious belief in India. At around 500 B.C.E., Upaniṣads was compiled as the foundational philosophical text for Brahmanism. Under the Upanishadic philosophy, every individual was believed to have a soul, namely ātman, and the purpose of life was to unite ātman with the cosmic principle, namely Brahman, through the practice of yoga. This could be seen as a typical religious response to anxiety of annihilation after death. As long as human had a soul that could exist forever, regardless of its nature, there would be no need to worry about annihilation. Besides, if uniting with Brahman was the purpose and the resulting state would be blissful, life would then have a meaning and a goal to strive for. Materialistic pursuit would simply be temporary and not worthy of the effort. Religion would then gain its importance in the life of the general population.

On the other hand, a popular religion would need to explain why leading an ethical life could result in eternal bliss. It might simply claim that the creator god was a righteous one and would only invite the righteous souls to his paradise. Brahmanism proposed the concept of karma in this matter. During the Upanishadic period, many different schools emerged, speculating whether moral actions would have any effects or consequences, in other words, whether karma existed. The general Brahman belief was good deeds would create good karma, which would then lead to a rebirth in more blissful plane of existence, and bad ones would lead to a rebirth in more woeful plane. For this theory to work, there were two pre-conditions: that rebirth or reincarnation (Skt: saṃsāra) existed, and that karma could be carried life after life, across the boundary of death. Therefore, while the concept of reincarnation was not established in the beginning, it gradually emerged in Brahmanism.

The Goal of Nirvāṇa

It was at that time when Siddhartha Bodhisattva himself went forth and pursued enlightenment. Legend said that he made the decision upon seeing the scenes of an old man, a sick man, and notably a corpse. This signified a typical scene that would trigger Death Anxiety among normal people. One might argue that Death Anxiety motivated Siddhartha Bodhisattva to seek the ultimate liberation from this world, whether reincarnation existed or not.

When Siddhartha Bodhisattva was at the verge of enlightenment, the Mara the Evil One was also said to use fear of death as one of his weapon to stop Siddhartha Bodhisattva. The story of Mara illustrated that Death Anxiety, apart from sensual pleasures and difficulties in understanding the path, was considered to be a key barrier to enlightenment. Nevertheless, Siddhartha Bodhisattva overcame the temptation and threats, achieved enlightenment, became the Buddha. His path started with the four noble truths, beginning with the cause of sufferings, which enlisted birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair (SN 56.11).

Looking closer to the list of sufferings, most of them would arise together in face of death. When a man was dying, he would either be suffering from aging or pain from illness, he would feel despair as he could do nothing, he would feel sorry, and he would have to separate from his loved ones. Death should be considered as a highly stressful event, and it would not be surprising for an ordinary person to have high Death Anxiety. The analysis of the cause of suffering led the Buddha to conclude that “everything is impermanent,” hence death and sufferings were all inevitable. A teaching such as this, confirming the reality of death, did very little in relieving believers in Death Anxiety.

Therefore, from the first noble truth, the Buddha proceeded to analyze the cause of sufferings, and he derived the profound teaching of co-dependent arising (Skt. pratītyasamutpāda; DN 15). From birth, the Buddha deduced the rest of the cause recursively, namely becoming, clinging, feeling, contact, name-and-form, consciousness, etc. These were collectively called the twelve nidānas. The idea was that if one could break any one of these nidānas or causes, one would break the whole cycle and be liberated.

Just like a tree was a conditional result out of sufficient sunshine, water, soil, and a seed, a person was a conditional result of having a name and a body form from parents, consciousness from sensation and perception, an existence from prior clinging and becoming, etc. Removing any conditions would eliminate the conditions for life to exist, and hence extinguish life. The end state of Early Buddhism was always named nirvāṇa, with the root of the word came from “extinguishing.” It was defined as “the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving, dispassion, [and] cessation” (AN 3.32). The goal of nirvāṇa, if not understood correctly, would not help relieve Death Anxiety, and hence the later Buddhist schools had developed many different concepts. Most of them fell towards eternalism.

Different Sectarian Views

After the Buddha entered parinirvāṇa, the monastic community underwent a number of schisms. While the first schism between Sthaviras and Mahāsāṃghikas during the Second Council appeared to be a dispute on the precepts, the subsequently schisms were due to philosophical and doctrinal difference. The key disagreements concerned about the existence of self, eternal life, and causal relationship. The anxiety about death was again hinted in these discussions, with the causal relationship a bit more indirectly related.

To understand the schisms, one would need to understand the concept of existence in Buddhism. When questions about soul, reincarnation, life after death, etc. had to be discussed, existence of life had to be defined first. Put it in a plain way, if a man entered heaven after death, which part of the man entered heaven? It would definitely not be his body, which would be decaying underground. In that case, what would that remaining part be? In other words, what could persist through death (and rebirth, if existed)? This had become an important question, before any religious doctrine could reduce Death Anxiety of their followers.

To eliminate the clinging to and craving for life, the Buddha refuted any kind of “self” existence. Using the doctrine of co-dependent arising, life was interpreted as a conditional existence based on five aggregates, namely form, feeling, perception, (mental) fabrication, and consciousness, and they manifested in “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near” (SN 22.48). Human existence would thus be understood as a phenomenal existence out of these underlying components, subject to changes under different conditions. During the Sectarian (or Nikāya) Buddhism period, these aggregates were further analyzed into over a hundred elemental entities, named “dharma,” and henceforth began the abhidharma tradition

Abhidharmikas believed that dharma were the real existing factors that created the phenomenal world and all living beings, the ingredients for co-dependent arising to work. It was on this common ground that schools such as Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika argued over a variety of doctrinal issues; for instance, what kind of dharma would actually exist for eternality, and what would not?

To illustrate the argument, we could look at the doctrine of Sarvastivāda. While the Blessed One tried to break up our existence into five aggregates (SN 22.79), the Sarvastivādins assured their followers that the aggregates and even the underlying dharma were all going to last forever. They existed in the past, current, and future. The Sarvāstivādin were thus getting dangerously closed to eternalism because a majority of dharma were defined as our mental processes. If they were to exist in the past, present, and future simultaneously, an eternal “soul” was implied. One could imagine a string that extended from the beginning of time to the end of it, if time had a beginning and an end, and when someone touched any point on the string, the whole string would be vibrating simultaneously. Why would Sarvāstivādin propose this kind of doctrine, despite its eternalistic sounding? Apparently, they were trying to solve the dilemma of incorporating memory and karma under the momentary co-dependent arising mechanism. When we did something in the past, the karma could now be transmitted through this “string;” similarly, when we tried to remember experience in the past, long vanished, the past dharma could still create the experience as memory for now through this “string.” Deep down, it could still be the same old fear in face of nihilistic death.

When the Fourth Council was convened, Sarvastivāda was further split and the Sautrāntika school emerged. Remembering the teaching of the Blessed One, Sautrāntikas refuted this eternalistic theory, and advocated that our life existed as a stream of moments, and that only the present moment existed. However, refuting the continuity of time would pose difficulties in explaining continuity of life, even in the current one. Hence they proposed the concept of mental seeds (bīja), which were past experiences captured in a latent state . These mental seeds were stored in the store-house consciousness named ālaya-vijñāna. They used this construct to explain the mechanism of karma, which was unique among Buddhist sects. Other schools such as Pudgalavādins went even further towards eternalism with concepts like “aggregated person” (pudgala).

The Buddhist construct of pudgala was one closest to the Brahman construct of ātman. Orthodox sects such as the Theravāda school seriously criticized the concept of pudgala as a heresy in Buddhism, but just like the others, they were forced to solve the misery of memory karma, and the simple stream of unified consciousness experienced by people in their daily life. They had hence invented the idea of subconscious mind (bhavaṅga-viññāṇa) to explain continuity across sleep and eventually death. That was proven a futile attempt to pull Buddhism back from the eternalistic tendency.

New sects endorsing pudgala continued to emerge, such as Vātsīputrīyas who argued that “the pudgala was neither identical to nor separate from the aggregates. Mahāsaṅghikas proposed the existence of “basic consciousness” whereas Mahīśāsakas proposed the eternality of aggregates. Even the Dārṣṭāntikas, who criticized Sarvastivāda and were close to Theravāda, extended the subconscious mind from Theravāda eventually to a more subtle subconscious mind that could persist through death and rebirth.

The True Dharma

The pull to eternalism was finally countered by Nāgārjuna, who tried to restore the Middle Path of the Buddha. In his Mūla-Mādhyamakakārikā, it was clearly stated that we are neither permanent (aśāśvataṃ) nor annihilated (anucchedam), and that this life and the next are neither identical (anekārtham) nor different (anānārtham). We do not have a beginning (anutpādam) nor an ending (anirodham), and we are not going to leave saṃsāra (anāgamam) nor are we coming back (anirgamaṃ). While these eight negations may seem paradoxical and even enigmatic, it was most aligned with the original teachings of the Blessed One.

Life can be perceived as a domino. Every piece falls as a result of the last piece. It is a series of cause and effect. When we look from a distance, it seems something is moving forward. When you look closely to every piece, nothing is really moving. Same can be said of the wave. Countless waves move from the ocean to the shore, but the water never leaves the ocean.

Life can also be perceived as a forest. A forest comprises of trees, grasses, flowers, insects, animals, river, etc. However, there is not a single thing called forest. The trees inside the forest may die and its seeds may grow, but the forest will not die as a whole. The forest is just a concept, and there are underlying compounds that keep changing and are impermanent. The seemingly permanent forest is just a conceptual proliferation (papañca). Its nature is therefore “empty” (śūnyatā). Similarly, life is made up of aggregates and dharma, previous lives and the coming ones. Life, however, is “empty” like the forest.

You cannot say that a forest does not exist, nor you can say that it exists. You cannot say that domino is not moving, nor you can say that it moves. This is the middle path. A Buddhist should always bear this in mind. When a Pure Land Buddhist prays to the Amitābha Buddha (nenbutsu), it should be bear in mind that even Pure Land is a temporary and well-conditioned place for practitioners to achieve Buddhahood. It was not meant to be a paradise for eternity. When a Zen Buddhist mediates on emptiness, it does not mean that the whole world is an illusion (māyā). The world does exist and is real, just like the trees and birds in the forest are all real.

In that case, what would be the goal of life? Were we supposed to achieve liberation, enter paradise, or attain nirvāṇa? To Nāgārjuna, it would not matter. Liberation, paradise, or nirvāṇa were all just mental fabrication, just a name people created for something unknown, speculated. He stated that:

na nirvāṇa-samāropo na saṃsārāpakarṣaṇaṃ
yatra kas tatra saṃsāro nirvāṇaṃ kiṃ vikalpyate

Wherein there is neither the attribution of freedom nor the elimination of the life-process, what is it that is being discriminated as life-process or as freedom?

Here, nirvāṇa was translated as “freedom,” a being free from grasping and thus suffering. It was not described as a psychological state existing in mid of meditation, nor was it a real plane of existence to be comprehended as heaven. To him, this ultimate state would be simply understood as a peaceful state:

… there is no denial of arising (utpāna) or that which is presently arising (utpadyamāna)… there is no denial of cessation (vyaya) either… there is no denial of “dependent arising” (pratīyasamutpāda) or that which is dependently arisen (pratītya yad yad bhavati)… the belief in eternal existence (astitva, bhāva) and nihilistic non-existence (nāstitva, abhāva) lead to the unfortunate consequences such as grasping (upādāna) and therefore, suffering (duḥkha). The avoidance of such perspectives… were considered as being “inherently peaceful” (svabhāvataḥ śāntaṃ).

Our “self” would not reside in a paradise called “nirvāṇa” because if we existed in nirvāṇa, and nirvāṇa existed as a real plane of existence, both our beings and the plane of nirvāṇa would decay and perish one day. It would have to be sustained under some conditions, because in a world of co-dependent arising, nothing could exist without the existence of its conditions. In that case, an eternal soul that could live in an eternal heaven would not be possible at all. Life itself could be free, here and now could be nirvāṇa, because there was no life-process without freedom, and there was no freedom without life-process. Nāgārjuna concluded that:

sūnyeṣu sarva-dharmeṣu kim anantaṃ kim antavat
kim anantam antavac ca nānantaṃ nānantavac ca kiṃ

When all things are empty, why [speculate on] the finite, the infinite,
both the finite and the infinite and neither finite nor the infinite?

No matter which Buddhist schools we follow, we have to stay on the middle path, avoid conceptual proliferations, which lead us to grasping and thus suffering. By truly understanding the middle path taught by the Blessed One, and also sharing the teaching with others especially the terminally ill, we are reducing the death anxiety and fear, which is a great practice on perfection of generosity (dānapāramitā) by giving assurance of safety (abhayadāna) in this saṃsāra. In fact, a hospice program employed a 40-hour Zen practice in their volunteer training, resulting in a significant increase in compassion and decrease in death anxiety. I am sure there will be more and more applications of the Buddhist wisdom in the hospice and end-of-life support area in the near future.