One of the most difficult transitions I’ve ever experienced, as an ex-Christian, was that of learning to think of “death” in the Buddhist sense. Mind you, I use the term “sense,” quite loosely because there is no one, perfect Buddhist definition for people like me (unenlightened). That said, there are some interesting differences, as well as similarities, in the ways that Buddhists and Christians view life and death.
Regarding “life,” Buddhists view it as never-ending (and never having “begun”), except for respites of varied and indeterminable lengths in between, with “extinction” (death, once and for all) as a happy goal (except if they elect a Bodhisattva existence, which allows them to return, again and again, at will). Conversely, Christians view life as impermanent with “everlasting life” as a happy goal and reward for living the one and only perishable life they believe they’re given, to the best of their abilities, and therefore enabling them to escape the eternal, irreversible, living-death of hell fire. Another way of saying this is that for Buddhists, there’s always the next life (and not necessarily a human one); but for Christians, this is, essentially, “it.”
One of the most fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism, which eventually freed me to become a Buddhist, was what I call each system’s “prime motivation.” When Christians proselytize, if nothing else works, the “threat” of burning in hell for “not believing,” convinces many people to profess some type of faith “just in case.” I mean, ya’ never know; this whole ‘burning in hell for eternity’ thing could be true… On the other hand, The Buddha Shakyamuni exhorted us ‘not to simply take his word,’ but to “test” what he said, and only proceed if we found his words to be true. This might seem like an insignificant ‘difference’ to some, particularly to Christians who already find “God’s Word” to be “true,” but for me, the freedom to weigh “the truth” against practical experience made all the difference in this world, for me (and I realize that Christians would also say they’ve arrived at the same determination in the same way).
Nonetheless, it always seemed strange to me that certain Buddhist practitioners would live their lives with the ‘goal’ of “extinction” (not returning for another life). Having been raised in the Christian faith, and taught that if I didn’t get my “one chance” right, I’d spend eternity burning in hell; the opportunity to return and try again (and again), as opposed to “Don’t pass Go; don’t collect $200; go straight to Hell” (I hope that’s right; I’ve never played Monopoly in my life), sounded pretty good to me – even if all those subsequent lives would be miserably weighed down with the fruits of negative karma. Subsequently, this seeming Buddhist fixation with “extinction,” never to return (though never really going away because you were never really born – ah, Buddhism, ya’ gotta love it…) seemed positively unnatural to me because who wants to die?!?
Here’s what I discovered. And mind you, this could make perfect sense to you, or mean nothing at all because it’s all a matter of timing, the right words, or no words at all. Additionally, I am not wise or all-knowing, and I cry every time I think of how someone, somehow, sometime, helped me get this through my thick skull:
Question: Why is being extinguished “good?”
- Being extinguished is neither “good” nor “bad” because we do not “exist”;
- it is not “we” who are extinguished, but rather, our delusions (e.g., concepts of “self,” ‘permanence,’ ‘independence’/‘separate-ness’); so, ultimately,
- when these delusions are gone, so is the “we” that doesn’t truly exist.
If this makes no sense to you, it isn’t because you’re stupid and I’m so smart. It isn’t even because I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice versa. All I can say is that even though it doesn’t look like much, it’s all I’ve got – and it’s the world to me.
Though the Buddha conveyed part of his wisdom through his teachings, much of it he conveyed silently, to those who were ‘ready to receive.’ The name of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, is interpreted as “silent one of the Shakya clan.” This is because he chose the life not of a contentious academic, or a street preacher, but of a ‘contemplative.’ As was the case with Jesus of Nazareth, who neither coined the term “Christianity,” nor called himself or anyone else, “Christian,” the Buddha neither coined the term “Buddhism,” called himself or anyone else a “Buddhist,” nor even talked half as much as Jesus, who was not a contemplative. All of the Buddhist sutras/suttas and the fact that there have been many “Buddhas,” only makes it seem like Buddha Shakyamuni was his own best corporate PR firm and publishing house. Unlike the Buddha, I can neither teach with or without words. I am not qualified. I can only share of my own experience, hoping to both learn from others, as well as daily increase in my own mindfulness and discernment.
And I continually review the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. The following is an excerpt, available in its entirety in PDF format, online, titled “Tao Te Ching: A Modern Interpretation of Lao Tzu Perpetrated by Ron Hogan,” ©2002, 2004.
“If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.
Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things….”