Revisiting Death and Afterlife

I’ve been away, but resume blogging today by revisiting questions about death and afterlife which I’ve written about frequently.  They are perennial questions which, for me, deserve regular revisiting. Yet please feel free to skip if it’s not your cup of tea.

My last remaining uncle died several weeks back and more recently a revered professor died. In addition, I regularly receive notice of the death of classmates, academic colleagues, church congregants, and other friends. It’s mainly a function of age (I’m now 77), which is also the reason that I glance daily at obits. And, as some readers know, my son died of cancer 15 years ago.

So death is often on my mind, as well as questions about afterlife – whether there is any kind of afterlife, whether Christian beliefs about death and resurrection are true, or Aristotelian beliefs about the immortality of the soul more likely, or Buddhist beliefs about nirvana and karma more reliable.

I know that many Christian friends don’t believe or are agnostic about “the resurrection and the life.” And I take their views seriously even as I continue to disagree.

Here I want to reiterate my belief that Buddhist ideas (as I understand them) about nirvana and karma as well as Christian belief in the bodily resurrection and eternal life (or heaven) are true, and that these Buddhist and Christian ideas are different but compatible.

Regarding the philosophical notion of an “immortal soul,” I find it interesting but implausible – for our souls are not separable from our bodies, even in death. Rather they are, as Aquinas best argued, the “form” (his term) or the life-force of our bodies. Without a soul the body does not live. (For what it’s worth, I also think this is also true for plants and animals.) And without a body, the soul is a myth in the negative sense – what one skeptic called “a ghost in the machine.”

I find the Buddhist notion of nirvana (again, as I understand it) quite compelling – and broadly analogous to Christian ideas about sanctity and thus related to Jesus’ saying that “the kingdom of God is among you” or “within you” (translations of Luke 17: 21 differ).

The historical Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama lived and died as we humans all do. Yet in this life he achieved enlightenment, buddha-hood or nirvana. After his enlightenment he was still fully human, teaching and touching, eating and sleeping, and so on. Yet he also lived on or in a “transcendent” level that was beyond desire and suffering – as Buddhism conceives these fundamental and world-governing powers — though beyond suffering from a twisted ankle or desiring a drink of tea.

He was recognized by his companions and experienced himself as a buddha, an enlightened one who had achieved nirvana. He was one of many such, both before his life and since. For most practicing Buddhists, then and now, buddhas are holy people who have attained enlightenment in the only way possible, while living a fully human life. They are not gods, not heavenly figures, but models or ikons or saints. Nirvana, then, is not a kind of life after death but a way of living in this life.

Those who know Buddhism know that nirvana and samsara (the force of desire and suffering which make the world go round) are identical, paradoxical as this seems. They also know that there is a “pure land” school of Buddhism which came to believe that all such enlightened ones continue to live after their death in a “pure land” that is broadly akin to Western ideas about heaven. They are, in my understanding, analogous to the Christian saints who, having achieved or been graced with holiness in this life, now reside with God in eternity or heaven.  (And if you know Buddhism and disagree, I again ask you to comment below.)

The complementary Buddhist (and Hindu) idea of karma means that the good we do in this life spreads into the world, into our families and societies (and even into the natural world), just as the evil we do (both as individuals and societies) causes evil effects to spread into the world. This strikes me as a straightforward empirical fact. Yet (the key point here) the good we do (as also the evil) lives on after our deaths. Our good karma, then, adds to the cosmic flow of compassion which pervades and grounds and nurtures this world – both while we live and after we die.

Thus, again on my understanding, nirvana means living this life deeply within the flow of cosmic compassion and contributing to it force. Just as bad karma contributes to the force of samsara (akin to biblical notions about the powers of this world) both during our lives and after we die. We ordinary humans, then, do indeed live on after this life by having contributed to this cosmic river of compassion or to its “samsaric” antithesis.

As I’ve said, I believe that these Buddhist ideas about nirvana and karma are fully compatible with Christian ideas about holiness and about death and resurrection, about the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet, as I’ve suggested, most Buddhists do not believe in any heaven or afterlife, certainly not in “the resurrection of the body.”

Christian belief in “the resurrection and the life” grew initially from debates within the Hebrew world Jesus knew (where certain schools believed in an afterlife and others rejected the idea). Christian belief was undoubtedly also influenced by Greek philosophy and perhaps by other ancient religions. Yet the one final foundation of Christian belief in heaven (and our own “bodily” resurrection) is the resurrection Jesus of Nazareth who was only then finally understood as the Christ or Messiah.

The shaping or formalizing of belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead took time, and thus there are different/differing accounts of empty tombs and resurrection appearances in the New Testament. But Christian orthodoxy has never denied that Jesus really died (in the full hospital sense of dead), just as the Buddha and Socrates really died, and as have all of our human ancestors. Just as all of us will really die. Gone, dead, nada. (Which is why I have problems with euphemistic understandings of “passing” which may suggest that aunt Emma didn’t really die.)

Yet while Jesus really died, orthodox Christian belief is that he somehow rose from the dead and returned. He appeared in what seemed a body, since he ate and talked, touched and was touched. Yet he also seemed able to appear suddenly and disappear – not “beam me down Scotty,” and not something anybody we know can actually do. Some sort of “transformed body” — my term, though an idea shared by many Christian thinkers and believers.  (Regarding the mystical transportation of place claimed for some saints, like Padre Pio whom I love, I remain faithfully agnostic.)

And because Jesus really died, and then rose to a new kind of life, Christians believe in an afterlife for the rest of us which is best understood as bodily resurrection. It’s as simple and unimaginable as that.

Yes, I know that much biblical testimony and Christian belief speaks of a “general resurrection” and judgment at the end of time for all who have died. Yet I also know that most believers, at least these days, think that their beloved dead are with God in heaven immediately. (“Aunt Emma is in a better place.”) I don’t think these beliefs incompatible, but it would take too long to explain why.  Just google around if you’re interested.

There’s more to be said and argued about all of this, and I hope anyone who’s read this far might choose to comment below.

And since Palestine and Israel are again/continually in news, I will note here my previous and final blog post on Israel should you want to look at it . As far as I’m concerned, while names and events change, nothing essential has changed from what I then wrote.

8 thoughts on “Revisiting Death and Afterlife

  1. John,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I was struck by how you forefronted Mahayana teachings on the existence of many buddha’s Over time, while so many textbooks present the Theravada teachings as “original” Buddhism.
    Regarding the relationship between the soul, the body, and afterlife/resurrection, I find myself arguing against the Cartesian “cogito ergo sun” that many invoke as an important point in Western/European conceptions of the relationship between body and mind. I always remind myself (and my students) that the mind can’t really exist without the body. But does the soul? That is a great question! Perhaps I need to read up on my Aquinas…although Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali both struggles with this issue as well (commenting on Aristotle from within their Islamic contexts).
    Again, thanks for the post, I think there is always room for thinking/feeling/sitting with the question of what comes next, in the ultimate sense.


    1. Patrick, very much appreciate your knowledge and comments. Had you and some others in mind when I asked for comments about my understandings of Buddhism. John


  2. Patrick queries “What comes next?” Christians hold that for those who have been faithful resurrection into God’s presence “comes next”. This presence is a personal presence; we are given a new name unique to our self (Rev: 2:17). Nirvana is freedom from desire, perhaps that movement into the “cosmic flow”, the cessation of self-hood. But for the Christian heaven is the fulfillment of desire, Augustine’s “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee! “Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor: 13:11). John mentions Jesus being touched, etc.; indeed the Gospels are very earthy about this resurrection, referring to weddings, mansions, paradise, etc. So far as the “soul” goes, Christians use it in references to one’s unique identity; it cannot be reduced to the body (think of Trombo’s “Johnny Got His Gun”!) It’s foundation is a personal relationship with the Lord, so beautifully expressed in Jesus call to Magdalene: “Mary”.


  3. As always, Rhett, I very much appreciate your thoughtful erudition. Yet, while I need to think more about it, I believe you are wrong to contrast the Buddha and Augustine. One way to suggest their compatibility (my basic point) is to say that, paradoxically, Prince Siddhartha (and all other Buddhas) had to seek and desire Nirvana. Supremely. And Augustine knew that desiring God was exactly the antithesis of “earthy” or “worldly” (both problematic words) desires — the kind of desires which lead to “endless restlessness,” which a good way of describing the samsaric/worldly desires from whose vice-like-grip Buddhism seeks liberation. Again, I’m not arguing that Nirvana and the Resurrection are the same, something I explicitly rejected, but that they are compatible. John


    1. John, I came across a thought of Merton”s which I think congruent with your viewpoint and perhaps Patrick’s too, regarding resurrection. It’s 1960 and M is grappling, as so often he does, with seeking further solitude. He writes: “Or perhaps I want to seek nothing at all, if this is possible, but only to be led without looking and without seeking. For thus to seek is to find.” (August 7, 1960)

      Merton was a great ecumenist, dialoguing not only with Protestants but also with Moslems and Buddhists.. He was accused, of course, of selling out Christianity as well as being an atheist! I don’t think such accusations stand up to the evidence. But I do understand the concern of his critics. And I wonder if your present reflection doesn’t reflect a trend towards syncretism and a relativizing of Jesus which does not accord with the Gospel.


      1. By the early 1960s, when the accusations were already flying, Merton had come to accept that his life would remain an insoluble contradiction to many, not least his fellow Christians. “My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, and I’m always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence I will always be accused of inconsistency. But, I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.” Merton’s first letter to DT Suzuki was penned in 1959, five years before “Nostra Aetate” would crack open the door to interfaith dialogue for Catholics. But it’s clear to me that the “one center” around Merton’s life and thought was always moving, was Christ, his experience of the risen Christ “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Even the Asian Journal is saturated with Christian mantras and iconic, Christ-haunted moments. His book Zen and the Birds of Appetite (also Mystics and Zen Masters) makes clear that his grasp of Buddhism (especially Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) was as deep and complex as many comparative theologians writing today, and his attraction was sincere and strong. (See also Day of a Stranger, a wonderful account of his life in the hermitage.) But as John indicates, there are points where Merton clearly rejects a facile “convergence” or syncretism between Christianity and Buddhism–where the beliefs and core experiences (e.g. resurrection, incarnation of the Godhead, etc) couldn’t be reconciled. Yet for Merton those beliefs themselves (as in Buddhism) arose from core experiences and practices – the personal and communal memory and experience of God – that did seem to share a great deal, existentially, with Buddhist “emptiness,” compassion, enlightenment. The rejection of Merton from the adult catechism some years ago is one of the more egregious and almost comical examples of conservative misreadings of Merton’s witness, an almost willful mischaracterization, because, as he mused about his Catholic critics with some sadness in his journal, “I’m not really one of the bunch, am I?”


  4. Rhett, I will ask my good friend, Chris Pramuk, to respond about Merton. I wrote my dissertation opposing syncretism and strongly disagree with your suggestion about what I wrote. I stand with many Christian’s whose practice and writing argues for what I argued about compatibility without confusion between Christianity and Buddhism. William Johnston, SJ, for instance. Christians may in full fidelity to the Gospels practice most forms of Buddhism and accept most fundamental Buddhist doctrines. The reverse (Buddhists accepting Christian doctrine) is not true, as far as I can see. John


    1. Chris, thank you for your response. I’ve been reading your book on Merton’s search for Sophia and it is incisive. In Merton’s “Hidden Ground of Love” he shares his prayer life with a Moslem, if memory serves, in a way that leaves no doubt about his orthodoxy. I think people of Merton’s depth and intelligence are capable of holding on to tensions that would send us ordinary folk off the deep end! Thanks again!.


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