I thought this article was interesting although I wasn’t as surprised by the findings as the researchers! Click here to read the article – Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists – and then read by thoughts below!
Strange as it may sound I don’t actually find these research results that unsurprising. Let me explain.
First it is important to note that the monks interviewed were “monks in training” not for example “Geshes” (monks / Lamas that have studied extensively Buddhist philosophy over circa a 20 year period). I would expect very different results from experienced monks that have meditated profoundly in reincarnation, karma, impermanence and emptiness.
One of the first things that you need to obtain if you wish to progress along the path to enlightenment set by The Buddha, is renunciation, or put more simply, the deep desire to be free of “suffering” (through meditating on the 4 noble truths). Within the process of developing “renunciation” one reaches the point of feeling great disgust and even fear of “Samsara” (cyclical existence). You come to recognize the incredible opportunity one has, here and now, and that the chances are that if you do not take advantage of it now you will fall back into a miserable rebirth due to the simple consequence of all your accumulated negative karma, life after life.
At the very beginning this can easily make you fear death, and desperately cling to this life, knowing that you have much progress to make – including purification – if you are to obtain very minimum that we should want from this life and that is another perfect human rebirth. You know that time is not on your side, as death can come at any moment, so again you may, at this stage in of the Buddhist path, cling to every possible day so you can “do all you can before death arrives”!!
Bodhicitta, ie equanimity and compassion for others, is the next stage on the path so while it may sound odd for a Mahayana Buddhist not to put others first, I suspect it is for the reasons I say above ie they were novice monastics, still very much focused on their own suffering.
That a non Buddhist fears death less is again not that unusual, as in the West we are supremely good at avoiding all thoughts about death! While no one when asked will deny that death will eventually come to all of us, the thought process is very much along the lines of “but not now” or “I’m still young so it won’t happen to me yet” ie by “avoiding” any serious thought of death we lose fear of it as it “won’t happen to me – at least not now” (and I have lots of things to get on with in the meantime!!)
On the issue of “annihilation” of the self, and the “fear” that arises, again the results are not perhaps so unsurprising. Christians and Hindus believe in a permanent eternal “Soul” or “Atman” while Buddhists believe in a non-permanent Mind Continuum that continues from life to life but is ever changing. As the article says the Buddhist belief is in something that is constantly changing life after life in terms of “personality, beliefs, ambitions and other characteristics” and those are the very things that we cling to when we consider the “self”, even if you have been taught that it doesn’t exist! One thing is understanding it through faith and the other is really assimilating what that means through profound analysis and meditation.
Just because you are taught there is no “self” does not mean you are not attached to a “self”, however illusionary it may be! Those that believe in a permanent “soul” however may easily take comfort in that being a continuation of the self (but just without a body), a belief which could be regarded as less scary!!!
The issue here goes back to what I was suggesting at the beginning ie you may have been taught something, or have “blind” faith in something, but that in its own right will not be enough to release you of attachment or fear. Wisdom must come through repeated and profound analysis, applying logic, to ensure all beliefs are built on solid foundations and do not crumble at the first sign of a “problem” (like confronting death!!). A novice monk, especially if they are from a traditional Tibetan background, will be deeply familiar with the core beliefs of the religion / philosophy they are following but will, in many cases, be lacking the tools to ensure their beliefs are based on proper analysis not just “blind faith” (the object of their faith may be 100% correct but the faith is based on traditional beliefs rather than analysis, something that, with time, they will learn as it is a fundamental part of the Buddhist philosophy ie everything should be analysed before it is believed).
I know from talking to my own teacher, Geshe Tsering Palden, a senior Tibetan Lama that fled Tibet at the same time as the Dalai Lama following the Chinese invasion, that he has absolutely no fear of death and gives wonderful examples of watching other Lamas, and his own teachers, die in absolute serenity, even smiling! But to be able to do that needs true wisdom and understanding of the teachings (not just intellectually or through faith) and needs many years and, probably lives, to attain!
This article contains my humble opinions and thoughts and should not be mistaken for the wisdom of my teacher, the Venerable Geshe Tsering Palden, or any other fully qualified Buddhist teacher or Guru. My only aim in writing this Blog is to try and train my mind in the path of the Buddha and if by so doing I am able to benefit others I dedicate all merits for the relief of suffering of all sentient beings.
Note: Any error in this text is entirely attributable to me, and only to me, and should never be attributable to the perfect teachings of Dharma. I sincerely apologise for any mistakes.