death in eastern thought – part two

We now let the quotations from the book, Death and Eastern Thought, speak for themselves.

This picture, taken by our photographer, is from southern China about six months ago.


temple neighborhood



From p. 103, in the chapter on The Orthodox Philosophical Systems (of India):

. . . .  the entire cyclic process is futile.  . . . . 

. . . .  It is the weariness of the traveler that makes him seek a resting place.  . . . .  it is mortality that forces one to seek immortality.  . . . .  The entanglement of the soul in the process of Samsara (birth-death-rebirth) is said to be ancient; it is even said to be beginningless, to emphasize a very long association.  This has resulted in an attachment to Samsara, keeping the soul within its fold, in spite of pain and sorrow, in spite of an existential pull to transcend.

From pages 108 – 109:

Death has to be understood both in its aspect of break as well as continuity.  . . . .  Thus death is both an event of anxiety as well as of joyful expectation in the understanding of these schools.

From pages 128 – 129. in the chapter on The Heterodox Philosophical Systems (of India):

Another modern Buddhist expresses the understanding of Nirvana as an extraordinary mental state in similar words: “What is Nirvana?  It is a condition of heart and mind in which every earthly craving is extinct; it is the cessation of every passion and desire, of every feeling of ill-will, fear and sorrow.  It is a mental state of perfect rest and peace and joy, in the steadfast assurance of deliverance attained, from all the imperfections of finite being.”

Further on on page 129:

Final Nirvana is said to be everlasting, for unlike a rebirth on earth or even in a heaven, this state is free from rebirth and, therefore, from redeath.

On page 133, we have these insightful words:

 A reflection on the momentariness of consciousness makes one aware that the actual “life” of an individual is only a single moment, at any one time.  The past moments of consciousness are dead and gone, and the future is not yet real, leaving only the fleeting present moment.  This typically Buddhist understanding of consciousness as a stream of individual moments leads one toward an awareness of the transitoriness of life.

In this same chapter on the heterodox philosophical systems, we read of the Jains and their beliefs, page 149:

Jainism built an ethical system upon the Ahimsa foundation. Like the Buddhists, the Jains understand Ahimsa to prohibit causing harm of any kind.  Thus, Ahimsa prohibits harming others as well as speaking or acting in such a way as to possibly incite anyone else to violence.  And, reasoning that “thought is the father of action,” the Ahimsa ethic requires the Jain to avoid harmful thoughts stemming from immoderate desire (passion) and immoderate dislike (aversion).

Like the Buddhist texts, the Jain sees one’s fear of death as a sign of spiritual immaturity.

And, on pages 150 – 151, we read:

The principle involved in the death with one’s will is that one should conquer death by facing it directly with self-control and serenity.

Moving on to Chapter V, Modern Hindu Thought, we read on page 164:

The phenomenon of death has a perennial fascination to the human mind.  It is the most common, yet least understood phenomena in nature.  . . . .  Indeed man alone can reflect on death; his concern and struggle with death raise for him the question of the meaning of life.  Although death is generally feared, dreaded, and concealed, it continues to challenge men to come to grips with life.

Tagore’s thinking is discussed here on page 171:

Tagore believed in a developing continuity of life, an evolution both physical and spiritual pointing to higher levels of being yet unreached.  He looked upon death as a preparation for fuller life.  The soul has to pass through many lives before the goal is reached.  . . . .  Death, therefore, is not man’s enemy, but rather a friend coming to set him free from intolerable pains, bondage, and unquiet.

Tagore does not, however, look upon the body as a tomb or prison of the soul from which it has to be liberated.  For him, man is bound up with nature.  The human spirit is bound up with material organism.  Contact with body, instead of being a tainting of the purity of the soul, is just the condition necessary for developing its nature.

Sri Aurobindo’s thinking is discussed on pages 175 -177:

Man is the epitome of evolutionary process; in him already has been accomplished physical, vital, and mental consciousness. His emergence as a self-aware being is a great fact of evolutionary life.  However, man is not conscious of the whole range of his being.  He does not know himself fully.  He is cut off from the universal consciousness.  He does not experience his unity with the omnipresent reality.  He finds himself subject to time and death.

Aurobindo regards the individual as a persistent reality, an eternal portion of the eternal spirit.

. . . .  Aurobindo points out that it is the psychic being that survives the death of the body and the dissolution of the vital and mental sheaths.  So immortality in the sense of durational continuation of existence belongs to the psychic being.

More of Aurobindo’s thinking further on (page 177):

Human ego is to be overpassed in order to enable man to achieve progress.  It is an inevitable condition through which the evolution has to pass in order to go beyond.  Disharmony and death exist so that man may seek a radical cure for them.

Some of Radhakrishnan’s thinking is on pages 188 – 189:

The self of man is essentially independent of his physical body.  . . . .  Death destroys only the physical body.

. . . .  The subtle body which is the core of man’s personality survives physical death and is subject to the laws of Karma and reincarnation.  The individual self (jiva) persists in other forms and conditions of existence to gain experience and knowledge and achieve fulfillment.     

 . . . .  The knowledge which we have gained, the character which we have formed will pursue us into other lives.  The moral and the pious rise, while the immoral and the impious sink in the scale.  The nature of the future life depends on the moral quality of the past life.

The conclusion to this chapter on modern Hindu thought gives these insights on page 194:

There is death for the physical body . . .  It does not end personality and self-consciousness.  Death is separation of the soul from the physical body; it becomes a starting point of a new life with fresh opportunities.  It opens the door for higher forms of life; it is a gateway to fuller life.

. . . .  Body is an instrument of all sensual enjoyments. Therefore man is intensely attached to the body.  Through ignorance, he identifies with the body which is impermanent and nonsentient.

The process of transmigration continues till the individual is purged of all impurities and acquires a true knowledge of the Imperishable.  The purpose of transmigration is, therefore, betterment of the individual.

The root cause of egoism is ignorance.  By destroying ignorance through knowledge of the Imperishable, it is possible to annihilate egoism.

Here are a few words on the beliefs about death in China, from Chapter VI, China on pages 219 – 220:

What attitude toward death does all this imply?  The answer is fear in a context of familiarity.  No Chinese wanted to go to hell, but all knew that most did, and once there, one found a replica of the human world.  Even the excruciating punishments were deserved and fitted to one’s crimes, and they didn’t last forever.  One knew that relatives on earth would perform rituals at the time of each crucial judgment to propitiate or bribe the officials, and that eventually rebirth would come.

. . . .

What we have said so far should not be understood to mean that traditional Chinese did not fear death.  On the contrary, they spent a tremendous amount of time and effort reassuring themselves that in death one meets the familiar; a reassurance that by our standards implies anxiety.  This same anxiety can be discerned in the prevalent fear of ghosts and in the concern to provide for ancestral spirits lest they become angry.

In the seventh and final chapter, on Japan, we read of the great zen master, Dogen, and his views on page 237:

For Dogen it seems that the root of illusion and also of pain lies in the psycho-mental attempt to be other than where one is at any time.  To imagine that life/death is an evil from which one wants release and entry into a Nirvanic state is precisely that which transforms life/death into something experienced as loathsome;  this occurs when man becomes attached to a “Nirvana” which is imagined to be other than the time and the place of his present existence.  Paradoxically, one has a real release from Samsara, existence apprehended as evil, precisely when one realizes that existence in the Samsaric realm is the only existence man has and is for that reason good.  And death for the same reason is good; it is something to which one ought to have no attachment either positively or negatively.

It is true that one can only live in the present moment as the past is gone and the future is not yet here.

Lastly, on pages 240 -241 we have these words:

. . . .  Dogen is advising the practice of Zen-sitting (zazen, or sitting meditation) for those who wish to understand life and death and overcome attachments to one or the other.  . . . .  “in Buddhism practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” Dogen eliminates all notions of Zazen or Zen-sitting as “means” to an end apart from itself – Satori or enlightenment – and expresses something in total harmony with his principle that there is complete fullness in every moment rather than the utilization of one moment to gain the benefits in another one.

. . . . Dogen insisted upon the importance of Zazen and made no allowances for what we would call “psychosomatic” evasions of practice.

from a parable . . . .  “If I’m going to die, I had better practice zazen with even greater effort.”  Ta-hui said.  . . . .  The minds of men of old were like this.  When they became sick, they practiced zazen all the more vigorously.  . . . .


We hope these quoted passages have served to stimulate your thinking. Studying the religions and philosophies of the East can give Westerners a broader perspective in their thinking.

For many, fear of death is seen as unnatural.

The best way to prepare for death is by living a loving life (love God and love others) and making sure that one helps rather than harms others.  As well, avoid excessive attachments, even an excessive attachment to life in this world.  Such an excessive attachment might serve as a weighty anchor keeping you tied to this fallen, miserable world, and retarding your progress.  Spiritual progress is what we should all want and all work for.  We are not saying you cannot enjoy the happy moments and good experiences in this life, but beware of cultivating an excessive attachment to these.

copyright 2014 –

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