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Death

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By Phiroz Mehta

An article written for the May 1982 issue of The Middle Way. Reproduced by kind permission of the Buddhist Society

The ORIGIN, a unitary Whole, is primordial Undifferentiated Creative Energy (not to be understood as any of the forms of energy known to Science). It is infinite, self-replenishing, inexhaustible, indestructible. The ORIGIN is also Pure Awareness, and Fundamental Substance (quite immaterial). These three named potencies — Energy, Awareness, Substance — designate the One single ORIGIN, just as John Michael Smith (and each name has its distinctive meaning) identifies one single person.

The unitary Whole rests in vibrant quiescence — vibrant because alive; quiescent because all its potencies are in equilibrium, in unconstrained freedom and perfect order. This equilibrium is rocked by a stir of Transcendence in Eternity — the primal Act — Karma. Thereupon, undifferentiated Creative Energy differentiates and simultaneously Pure Awareness proliferates complementarily and interactively. Grades of Awareness-Being emerge, interfused in each other and fully inter-related to one another, preserving the unity of the One Total Reality. These grades, beyond all ordinary sense-perception, have distinctive powers which function universally.

One of these grades is Mind, that cosmic archetypal expression of Energy Awareness which plays the directive role when the Cosmos, of which our observable universe is only a fragment, comes into being.

The primal transcendental Karma has no cause-effect sequence in it, no beginning-proceeding-ending, no birth-death. It is free, blissful Creativity in Eternity. It has no form, no measurability, no limitations. It is a discontinuous, creative pulse, non-repetitive, i.e. not giving rise to the same creation as any other pulse. There is constant, incredibly swift renewal, transmutatively not transformatively. There is a new Totality with every pulse (Karma’s transcendental functioning), which is the meaning of “the complete working out” of Karma. Where Eternity is concerned, there is only immediacy, neither time nor succession. So too in our worldly, mortal sphere, but in terms of time and succession. Because it happens with extreme rapidity, our sluggish consciousness is unable to be aware of the complete working out of karma from moment to moment.

We may call this pulse of Creation the Life-Death pulse in which Life and Death are simultaneous. But here Death is the transmuter, not the ender. Preferably then we should call the pulse of Creation the “Life/other-Life” pulse.

By this Action in Eternity, the immaterial Fundamental Substance, compressed into a single pin-point, bursts open explosively and becomes our universe of space-time-mass-energy (the forms of energy known to Science), displaying infinite variety — the One as the Many, the countless Many as the indivisible One. This universe, the apparatus through which the ORIGIN manifests itself, is wholly perishable. Marvellous though it may be, it is merely “one garment of the Lord”. We humans, as multitudes of existential beings (rūpa to viññāna), are similarly the wholly perishable apparatus, the numerous ‘garments’ of the One Imperishable attā or ātman (the Transcendent non-being) — do not say ‘Self; in English, ‘self, quite sensibly, means just the perishable psycho-physical organism. All beings, identifiable entities, are absorbed at death into the One all-pervasive non-being and are completely divested of separate identity — like rivers entering or raindrops falling into the ocean. The One non-being emanates, or presses out of itself, numerous existential beings, all of whom are new beings.

Consider the procreative process. Each parent produces a gamete (a mature reproductive cell). The process of development of a gamete, male or female, differs from that of a non-reproductive cell, for it involves the rearrangement of the genetic material inherited by each parent from their parents. The union of the male and female gametes produces a zygote, which becomes the new individual, different from the parents and from any person that ever was, is, or will be. He is a new creation, with new possibilities of mental development dependent on his environment and physical development. This is not a transference or carrying over of karma or character from a pre-existent person and is incompatible with any theory of re-incarnation.

Furthermore, our psychical life of thought and feeling depends upon the interaction of parts of the highly complex nervous system and the influence of the endocrines. At death, the brain and central nervous system, and with them the whole life-record of thought and feeling, are obliterated. We die completely — the one act no one can avoid performing completely! The Buddha did teach that all five khandhā, rūpa to viññāna are anicca. They all perish. Perhaps this is why in the brahmavihāra meditation we are told not to direct mettā or karuṇā to a dead person; it is the existential being who is in suffering and needs compassion, not The ORIGIN which subsumes him and is embodied in him.

When Fundamental Substance bursts open, the influence of the formative, order-producing power of Mind releases a Cosmos with a streak of Chaos running through it. Chaos supplies the challenge and impetus for striving, inquiry, experimentation, understanding and coming to fruition through progressive change by obedience to Law. Only a part of this Cosmos (the macroscopic) operates in terms of cause and effect, not the sub-atomic realm, in relation to which the traditional concepts of cause and effect, and of space and time, are meaningless in modern particle physics. The Cosmos is constrained by Law that guides and ultimately presents it, liberated, back to ORIGIN. We do not know the karmic law in its fullness. That aspect of it which we call cause and effect is the lord of process on the large scale, and even that is dimly understood and inadequately expounded.

The emergence and functioning of Cosmos introduces the context of existence with which we are familiar, namely, the finite, temporal and mortal. This is fully subsumed in the context of Transcendence, namely, the Infinite, Eternal and Immortal — the not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, as affirmed by the Buddha. By the primal Act — the stir of Transcendence in Eternity — the ORIGIN, by constructing Itself, ejects an involutionary swirl and the grades of Awareness-Being emerge. When at the same instant Fundamental Substance bursts open and Cosmos is released, then beginning-proceeding-ending; birth-death; conflict, confusion and ignorance; all duality and multiplicity and evil make their appearance.

As involution proceeds, Energy continues to concretize and Awareness to be imprisoned in greater and greater degree, till the most dense and unenlightened state is reached in the mineral kingdom — complete earthiness. But consider the diamond, flashing with the promise of perfection of the ORIGIN, for even the concretest, least awakened state in the Cosmos is the embodied ORIGIN, brought into being by its own primal Act (Karma). Earth, however, is the mother of Life and the evolutionary process: through plant and animal there is lessening density of structure, growing refinement and sensitivity, exquisite complexity rooted in and based upon simple principles, and deeper awakening of consciousness.

There is an important implication here. The context of the Infinite/Eternal/ Immortal is wholly interfused with the context of the finite/temporal/mortal. What is even more important is that each and every finite particular in the entire Cosmos, from an atom to a galaxy, a virus to a perfected Holy One, is permeated through and through by the whole of Infinity, by all of Eternity. We cannot slice up Infinity or Eternity and appropriate bits for our finite selves any more than we can carve out slabs of space and screw our nameplates on them.

So we can see that statements like ‘my’ immortal spirit or ātman or soul are incorrect statements. Nevertheless, the Immortal proves its immortality through the mortal who has utterly purified himself; i.e. Deathlessness manifests unobstructedly through the death of all grasping and of every vestige of the consciousness and activity of separate selfhood.

Here, Death is the purifier and liberator by being the destroyer of unskill and evil.

Science, having extensively investigated matter and the forms of energy we know, has shown that matter is electrical in origin and that mass and energy are interconvertible. So the age-old separating wall between the “immaterial” and the “material” has become so brick-bare that we can perceive unitary wholeness freely without encountering this wall. The world-view of modern scientists inclines increasingly towards a unitary wholeness; e.g. “Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement” (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 11, by Professor David Bohm.)

The erstwhile “immutable Laws of Nature” which hold on the macroscopic scale are not obeyed in the sub-atomic realm. Uncertainty and probability prevail here and have shaken the “fixed order of things”. Strict causality is one of the major casualties. We must revise our understanding of the Law of Karma.

Change — the constant universal phenomenon — may be:

  1. Fortuitous, and apparently of no significance or value;
  2. Regressive: deterioration, decrepitude, decay;
  3. Progressive: improvement, growth, fruition, culmination;
  4. Final; death as a gentle ender or violent destroyer, OR, Death which is Perfecter, Consummator, Transmuter.

The karmic process is the living process of the ceaselessly changing universe as a whole. Whilst confined to viññāna (discriminative, analytical consciousness) which prevents the functioning while we are alive of “Pure all-inclusive Awareness shining everywhere” — viññānam anidassanam anantam sabbatopabham (M.1.329) — the Buddha’s equivalent of the ātman (see especially the Varāha Upanishad, 2.21), — we think fragmentarily and speak incorrectly when we say “my” karma or “your” karma. It is karma in its totality which has you or me, not you or I who have karma. The prevailing state of the universe at any instant changes into the next state by the very next split second. Death and rebirth play their parts. In our personal life as existential beings, how does rebirth take place? Because of the ceaselessness of change, the prevailing state dies. Here, death is the ender. Karma, now functioning as cause-effect sequence and not transcendentally because it is operating in the existential sphere of the finite and temporal, releases the changed state. Excepting the perfected Holy Ones, all of us are isolatively and separatively self-conscious (self meaning the five-aggregate bundle) in terms of “I am I and not any other person or thing”. The ordinary I-am-I consciousness is indispensable for our everyday life. I is this “and not any other person or thing” which is the root of evil and endless conflict, for it denies the fact of our complete inter-relationship with the universe.

Furthermore, if we scrutinize intently and clear-sightedly (granting that we have the faultless ability to do so) to what exactly are we referring when we say “I am I”, we shall see that this “I” is no other than one or more or even all of the five khandhā, for the khandhā are all that we are really conscious of. Words like God, ātman, Creative Spirit, divine spark, etc., are but symbols, arbitrary assertions, not conscious realizations. We may sincerely asseverate that this “I” refers to the attā. But persevere with the scrutiny and we will discover it is not the attā to which we are actually referring, for if it were, our “I-am-I” consciousness would be the Totality-embracing, transcendent Pure Awareness, and therefore our daily thinking-feeling-speaking-doing would naturally and spontaneously manifest Transcendence. Does it?

Therefore, our isolative self-consciousness which arises quite some time after our birth as the result of our circumstantial conditioning, which functions right through our waking and dream states but which remains quiescent whenever the organism is in sound dreamless slumber or in deep jhāna, which re-associates itself with the organism when the body wakes up again, and which survives only as long as all five khandhā hold together as the living existential being — this “I-am-I” is indeed only existential, and completely perishes with the perishing of the organism.

In our daily life we continuously associate this “I” with every thought, feeling, mood, action, etc. So we helplessly say, out of our ignorance, “I think, feel, do, etc.1 When the prevailing state or action has come to its end, “I” have died. Immediately afterwards the “I-am-I” self-consciousness associates itself with, and is lord of the next state. So, “I” am reborn and die and am reborn countless times during the single lifetime of the organism. How profoundly significant is the Buddha’s affirmation on the twenty-first night after the Enlightenment:

“He who doth crush the great ‘I am’ conceit2, this, truly this, is happiness supreme” (Mahāvagga 3.4).

Now if in our own lives the emergence of the new state is to be a perfect, healthy birth, we have to die healthily; i.e. die wholly and voluntarily to the prevailing state. No grasping at the new: no clinging to the perishing old. Thus we cease to be miserable perishers. Thus too proper growth takes place. We see, then, why the Buddha emphasized that we should not cling to rūpa or vedanā or saññā or samkhārā or viññāna. The entire existential being dies from moment to moment during its lifetime, and completely so with the final end of the psychophysical organism.

Here, death is the destroyer, gentle or violent, according to the circumstance.

Hence of no khandhā can it be said: “This is mine, this am I, this is the attā of (or within) me”. The Buddha taught that each and every one of the five khandhā composing the whole of the existential being should be seen with wise, perfect insight as “This is not mine, this am I not, this is not the attā of me”. There are two implications here:

  1. ‘I’ (ahām) as used by all the perfected Holy Ones, is identical with the attā, and;
  2. The attā is the Imperishable, birthless and deathless. Its context is the Infinite, Eternal, Immortal. (The Commentary on the Udāna, p. 340, explains tathāgata by attā.)

Thus death operates continuously throughout our existential life. So does rebirth in — and only in — the sense and context explained above. In the Visuddhimagga (p. 625, Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s translation) Buddhaghosa writes: “When a man is confused about death, instead of taking death thus, ‘Death in every case is the break-up of aggregates’ (rūpa to viññāna), he figures that it is a lasting being that dies, that it is a lasting being’s transmigration to another incarnation and so on. When he is confused about reappearance, instead of taking rebirth thus, ‘Birth in every case is the manifestation of aggregates’, he figures that it is a lasting being’s manifestation in a new body. When he is confused about the round of rebirths, instead of taking the round of rebirths thus, ‘The endless chain of aggregates, of elements, of bases too, that carries on unbrokenly is called the round of births’, he figures that it is a lasting being that goes from this world to another world, that comes from another world to this world”.

All the above may cause distress, produce painful perplexity. Questions will arise: If there is no reincarnation, how can my karma be worked out in a single lifetime? How can I possibly perfect the sīlas and pāramitās, become proficient in samādhi, grow in faultless insight (paññā), destroy the cankers, āsavā, become a Bodhisattva, attain Buddhahood, realize Nirvana?

Are not all these questions self-oriented? And therefore defeating any chance of seeing Truth? Do they not betray “my” egoism and vanity, lust and greed, illusions and delusions, fears and stupidity? If and when you loved truly, purely, transcendentally (which is the ultimate meaning of humanly) did you ask, expect, hope for anything from the Beloved for yourself? Or did you give your whole self, unreservedly and unconditionally to the Beloved?

Do not worry about your Karma. The universe will see to it! As already said, it works itself out completely from split second to split second. We all know that our moods, feelings, thoughts, etc. are intimately linked with the electrochemistry of the body, promoting health or producing disease according as our psychical activity is skilled or unskilled. Again, throughout the day we experience the effects of our choices, decisions, judgements, attentiveness, mindfulness, etc. etc. Furthermore, we must remember that not one of us is solely and exclusively responsible for the thoughts and feelings, words and actions in our daily life. The whole world is involved in whatsoever proceeds out of us or befalls us. Being blind to the dukkha wrought by the isolativeness and separativeness of our self-consciousness, we resent this and think it is unjust. But the factual living process of the universe — karma — takes no notice of our concepts or methods of administration of justice. We are but imperfect humans, prisoners of avijjā and tanhā, sub-humans still growing towards true humanness.

If you are still worried, consider these points. Transcendence embodied in you has no existential karma. When the five-khandhā bundle dies, all the physical atoms composing the body return to the universal stock, all the psychical components likewise return to the aggregates, affecting and influencing the quality and properties of the stock. Each of us is thus responsible for all, and all for each.

Not a single one of these countless atoms or psychical components is labelled John or Maria. If you have been an evil person, posterity may recall your name with sorrow; if good, with love; if a perfected Holy One, with adoration. When a new individual is born, the stuff composing him is drawn out of the worsened or improved universal store of atoms and psychical components. All the Johns and Marias and creatures and plants and the very earth itself of the whole past of the world are contributors to the new babe. The new babe is the rebirth of the Totality, not of “you” or “me”. The One is in the multitude; the Multitude is in each and every one, and in THE ONE. Truth is a-rational, fully subsuming rationality and irrationality.

We may take a deeper view. Infinity and Eternity wholly subsume the existential. Within eternal Transcendence, the existential lives and moves and has its temporal being. Transcendence never compels — it has no need to do so. Compulsion is manifest only in the sphere of the perishing relative. But Transcendence and the relative affect each other. We as mortals leave an impress by our whole life-activity upon Transcendence. The relative has no creative power except biologically, and that too only pro-creatively. Transcendence IS Creative Energy. Our imperfections (failures) necessitate new expressions in the finite and mortal sphere of the relative by the Creative Power of Transcendence. Thus karma works holistically; but the new expressions are not re-incarnations. The originality of the Divine Craftsman is inexhaustible. An ancient teaching affirms that the Universe is the Son of Necessity. Meditate on it.

Karma is not concerned with “rewarding” the good and “punishing” the bad (ponder deeply on the first two verses of the Dhammapada), nor with “balancing the accounts” for each separate person. Karma works holistically for the fruition of the Whole. Transcendence is the immortal Doer and final Reaper, not mortal “you” or “I”, the finite, temporal garments of the ORIGIN. The true function of karma is to Heal, to make Holy that fragment of Totality which is bruised, ill and crazy, and enable it to be re-integrated into the ORIGIN. Thus indeed divine Justice is done.

In his Nicomachean Ethics (Book 5, Chapter 2), Aristotle said, “Justice is the practice of perfect Virtue towards others as well as oneself”. How perfectly this is in harmony with the Buddha’s teachings (see, for example, The Parable of the Saw, M.1.128, 129) and with the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus (Matthew, Chapter 5)!

Consider with a heart at peace (i.e. un-self concerned) this story:

The Divine Justiciar, Almighty Lord of Karma, said to his devotee crouching by Thames bank:

“My child. what are you doing there?”

“Counting the drops of water, father.”

“Why?”

“To balance the accounts due from the water-pot bearers.”

“Come away, dear child, and desist from fruitless toil. I pour out the Holy Water of Eternal Life, and all are made Whole by that tide. I open the heart of Compassion and Wisdom, and all enter into everlasting bliss. In my House of Songs, none sweats at accounts — my twin brother, Death, sees to all that. Beloved Child! come thou in and sing me a sweet song. And Nirvana’s Peace will enfold you.”

If you truly long to awaken to Truth and not stop short at “signed-on-thedotted-line” membership of the Buddhist (or any other religious) fold, live the Holy Life, the brahmacariya. Its heart is sammā satī, perfect mindfulness every moment of your life, waking and sleeping. When satī climaxes in supreme intensity, you will be in rhythm with the karmic process from moment to moment, and you will experience Death as Other-Life. This is the realization of Deathlessness by Transcendence in and through you, the unobstructing perfected Holy One. Here Death the Other-Life, “become one with the Supreme” (in the words of the Subāla Upaniṣad, 11, 13, 15) is the Perfecter and Consummator.

“You” or “I”, finite and mortal, can never enter Nirvana, for we would only “stain the white radiance of eternity” by our passion to remain identifiable entities. In Nirvana, in the context of infinity and eternity, there are no separate identifiable entities. But when we take the Lord of Death right into our hearts. Other-Life completely dissolves finitude and mortality. All isolative self-consciousness disappears, transmuted into the all-inclusive Pure Awareness of the ORIGIN. Death, the Lord of the hidden Light, gives us the kiss of Life Immortal. Thereupon, only the ORIGIN, Transcendence Alone, IS. Thus Death is the divine Transmuter, Śiva the Auspicious. These are all words. But meditate on them till they wither away by springing to life as fully awakened Pure Awareness. And you will realize Death as the honey of sweet savour spread on your slice of the bread of Life.

  1. The word ‘I’ is a linguistic convenience in practical daily life. As such, all the Holy Ones used it freely. The frequency and tone-quality of the word as used by most of us is a reliable measure of our egoism.
  2. Here, conceit means a fanciful, unreal notion.

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