death in eastern thought – part one

Why do we fear death?

3 possible reasons are fear of the unknown, fear of the cessation of consciousness, and fear of hell-fire (punishment).

The next moment is an unknown to us.  Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one. The next time you get into your car a reckless or drunk or drugged driver might kill you in a smash-up.  Unknowns are ever-present in this life.

If one’s fear of death is really the fear of the end of one’s consciousness, you can easily discard this silly fear.  If bodily death ends your consciousness, you won’t be aware (conscious) of being without consciousness.  You won’t be around, so to speak, to regret the loss of your consciousness.  We might say one would have the peace of the grave.

As to fear of hell-fire, if you have lived a loving and moral life why would you fear the prospect of hell-fire?  Have you refrained from harming others – all others (even those tiny and defenseless)?  True, many people are in a state of denial as to how they have lived their lives – but that is a possible topic for another day.

Another consideration is that death, like being born, is something that we do completely alone.  We cannot do it in a group setting or context.  Even when several individuals are killed at once, say in a building collapse or from a bomb exploding, each dies as an individual.  It is not a group death but rather a death for several distinct individuals.

Here is one of our pics from a mausoleum, columbarium and crematorium complex.  It reminds us of human mortality.


columbarium 7


Obviously, no one desires an untimely death in the prime of life when one has family responsibilities and various aspirations and goals to work to achieve. But, in old age, is there much point in clinging to life?

Personally, I think a human life span of no more than several decades is evidence of God’s mercy.  As well, what sane person would want to hang around this miserable world for longer than that?  Extending human life with medical technology – to what end?

Death is, in a sense, a rite of passage – as much as birth, adolescence, and entering adulthood are.  Death was a rite of passage for primitive man and explains his elaborate funerary ceremonies and rituals.

The fact is humans do not want to die, they want to know and do not want to remain in ignorance, and they desire happiness. That was covered in our earlier essay:

death in eastern thought – part one

The various quotes we include in this essay are from Death and Eastern Thought – Understanding Death in Eastern Religions and Philosophies, Frederick H. Holck, editor.  Abingdon Press, Nashville and New York, copyright 1974, paper bound, 256 pages with notes after each chapter.

The book’s 7 chapters are written by various authors (scholars) and address the understanding of death by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in India, and the understanding of death in China and Japan.

I first read this thought provoking book in 1989 while still a relatively young man.  (It is amazing what one can find in a used bookstore.)  I recently pulled it from the book shelf and reread most of it, now as a middle-aged man, 25 years nearer to my own time of transition (bodily death).  We will share some thought provoking quotes with readers and will give a little context for the reader but will try to spare you an excess of our own personal method of spiritual interpretation.  (We may be attempting too much in this essay.)

some background

For many in the East, the objective was to find a way of living – living properly – and preparing one’s self for death throughout one’s life.  This does not mean that one is fixated on or obsessed with death.  But, while living, one is aware of and maturely accepts that death will come in time.  This is not merely some amusing mental exercise, but is very serious to people.

Death is a constant.  It is part of all life in this world.  Death is seen as the means by which one passes from one ontological plane of being to another plane.  Thus, a part of us survives the death and decay of the physical body, and continues on.

What one thinks at the moment of death is important.  If you train yourself through spiritual practices (prayer, meditation, chanting the holy names of God, etc.) to think of God often, then there is a greater likelihood you will think of God as you depart this life.  If your final thought is of God, then you will go to Him.  (But, we think the sum total of all your thoughts, words and actions is also important.  Your whole life will be evaluated.)

As many in the East believe in the transmigration of the soul from life to life, heavens and hells in the East were thought to be temporary abodes where the fruits of one’s karma were enjoyed or expiated for a time before one was reborn again in this world.  Only by finally over coming the process/cycle of birth-death-rebirth through liberation (or release) can one be eternally free.

(I also encountered this in The Catalpa Bow – A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan, by Carmen Blacker: this idea that hell is temporary and that the living can perform rituals, sacrifices and prayers to lessen and/or shorten the torments of those suffering souls in hell.  This idea is an independent analog in the East of what Catholics in the West believe about Purgatory – except that for Catholics, the exit from Purgatory is to Heaven, not coming back to this world.)

In the West, it was not until the Second Council of Constantinople in 562, called by Emperor Justinian, that the idea of the pre-existence of souls (prior to one’s current lifetime) was finally condemned (and discarded) in Christianity.

the ascetic ideal – is it necessary?

This section is tangential to the main subject of this essay, but we feel it ought to be included here and not in a separate essay of its own.  The reader may choose to skip this section with no serious loss of continuity with the main essay.

Even though there are many examples over the centuries of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ascetics, you do not have to be an ascetic to be spiritual, to be spiritually minded.  Spirituality is not denied to married householders.  In fact, in India they encourage people to do their duty at the various stage of life.  When young and a student, obey your parents and learn as much as you can. When you marry, be a good spouse and parent.  Then, when old age arrives and your family responsibilities are discharged (your children are now independent adults), you can with your spouse retire to the forest (literally in centuries past) to prepare for death and concentrate your energies on spiritual advancement free of worldly distractions.  The lifelong ascetic is discouraged in India.  (Contrast this to the ideal in the Christian West, especially during medieval times, when the young man or young woman who renounces the world and the senses for a lifetime in the monastery or the cloistered convent was thought very highly of.  Doubt this?  Can you name very many Christian saints who were married householders?)

We do not believe celibacy and/or asceticism is necessary for one to be able to make spiritual progress.  It may seem odd to the ascetic minded, but those persons who are sexually fulfilled within a loving, committed relationship – preferably within marriage  are not out seeking or trolling for sex and are thus free to pursue higher interests without the distraction of a frustrated sexuality.  People who are not sexually fulfilled are usually looking, seeking for it and thus they give little thought to making spiritual progress.  Celibacy and asceticism may work for a very small percentage of individuals, but celibacy/asceticism should not be made into an ideal.  (Celibacy being a holy state and superior to the married state is not an authentic Christian position. Such a position reflects an unhealthy pride on the part of celibates and ascetics.)

One does not have to be ascetic, but one ought to live a moral life.

Do not make sense gratification into a false god in your life.  You are more than your genitals, more than your physical body. Strive to lead a moral life. One does not have to neglect these appetites – but neither should the satisfaction of these bodily needs and appetites take such a central role in one’s life.

end of sermon

Now, in part two, we will provide the quotes that these words of background have prepared the reader for.

 . . . . to be continued . . . .

Best wishes to all.

copyright 2014 –


  1. “Celibacy and asceticism may work for a very small percentage of individuals, but celibacy/asceticism should not be made into an ideal.  (Celibacy being a holy state and superior to the married state is not an authentic Christian position. Such a position reflects an unhealthy pride on the part of celibates and ascetics.)”
    Are you familiar with the teachings of the eastern orthodox church? I think this statement would be considered incorrect by most EO members. The history of asceticism in the church is considered the highest and most difficult calling, and in many time periods, mass amounts of zealous Christians took up the celibate life, which is also growing greatly today . Just wanted to suggest further thought/research on this matter, before making a statement in the name of the church fathers.
    That is not to deny marriage as a great calling and holy sacrament in the least, but ascetic life is considered the example given by Jesus and Mary.

  2. Thanks Rebekah for your comment.

    I am not so well versed in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but I am well versed in the history of the western Catholic Church prior to the Schism of 1054. One does not have to retreat to the desert and basically be a hermit to be holy. Consider that Jesus’ ministry was a public one. He was not a solitary sage living on a remote mountain. Nor did He talk ill of the married state. Can you find Jesus talking down about marriage in the Gospels? No, you cannot.

    As to citing Mary as a justification for the ascetic life, I have to correct you here. Mary’s virginity is important theologically as we addressed in our essay on Mary back in July, 2012. True God and true man – conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. How does Mary’s virginity support asceticism for the rest of us? Improper application.

    1. I agree that Marriage is not looked down upon, or ever to be considered unholy. It is the lifestyle that compliments asceticism in holiness. As far as Mary goes, the orthodox and Catholics. Agree she was raised in the temple in a virgin life, and continued this lifestyle of prayer fasting and virginity to her death. She is the Patton of orthodox monastics.
      My main point was simply to point out that the orthodox, and probably the Catholics would disagree with the statement I quoted from your text. It is not a contradiction to the holiness or importance of marriage. I didn’t want to argue, Just point out that these ancient faiths responsible for our doctrinal canons might disagree.

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