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The Paradox of “Taking Refuge” in a Non-theistic Religion
Zen "Forms" (Established Ways of Doing Things) and How They Can Be Liberating

A friend of mine recently asked me how I view after-death experience.

This is a somewhat awkward question for a Zen teacher to answer. On the one hand I view after-death experience as irrelevant to how I decide to live my life. The Buddha aptly categorized the issue of what happens after death as a question “which does not tend to edification” – that is, to the instruction or improvement of a person morally or intellectually.1 Furthermore, the Buddha taught that the religious life has nothing to do with the answers to such questions and in fact the pursuit of the answers may fatally distract one from the critical task at hand: spiritual liberation and wisdom in this life.

On the other hand, as a Zen practitioner I am committed to facing everything in order to see the truth. When my friend asked his question, I noticed that I had been dutifully avoiding the question of after-death experience. This made me determined to examine my own thoughts on the subject – but not in order come closer to any objective truth about the matter, which I believe is difficult if not impossible in any case, and a distraction besides. Rather, I wanted to examine my own mind for what might be lurking there: feelings, assumptions, anxieties or judgments around the possibility of after-death experience.

It seems to me that the pivotal question about after-death experience is, “to what extent do ‘I’ experience it?” Clearly, whatever “I” there is that might experience something after death will not have a physical body, so this “I” will be substantially different than my before-death existence. The idea that our thoughts, memories, personalities, loves, intentions, etc. continue to manifest free of the body in some kind of soul or essence or “life-energy” seems preposterous to me. My personal experience has borne out the Buddhist teachings: our “self” is a flowing, dependently co-arisen phenomenon. We are who we are in dependence on and relationship with our physical form, our brains, our environment, our culture, other beings – in short, everything. There is no independent, enduring, unchanging thing we can point to and call the essence of our self. A different “self” arises for us in different situations, throughout the day, and over the course of our lives. Even if there is some kind of essence or life-energy in us, you can’t just pop it out of a body and that body’s context and have it remain a neat package of all the most unique and sentimental aspects of a person. This, frankly, seems to me like mere wishful thinking, especially when it is coupled with the belief that the neat packets of people-essence collect over time in a great repository where they experience everlasting life. However, this vision is the central tenet, the pivotal teaching, of many religions, so I am sorry if offend anyone by speaking frankly.2

Now things get a little trickier, because I personally know a few people – people I respect and trust – who say they have experience with spirits or ghosts. I do not have this experience myself, but I cannot easily discount it. How does the possible existence of spirits or ghosts fit with my view of after-death experience, if I don’t believe in a soul?

Notice that I did not state the view that we do not have any kind of life-energy that might separate from our body upon death. I simply proposed that such an energy is not going to pop out as an ethereal duplicate of our embodied sense of self, like all of a person’s essential programs and data get downloaded onto an invisible computer disk for complete transfer to another manifestation. It seems extremely unlikely, what with the way energy of all kinds usually dissipates when it is released. But who knows – maybe “life-energy” acts differently (although I hate to speculate about some previously undiscovered form of energy or matter). Maybe “life-energy,” when it is very strong, has its own gravitational pull and remains coalesced. 

Even if we have some kind of life-energy that remains collected after death, perhaps even with some kind of shape and characteristics (let’s call it a spirit), what would be the nature of this phenomenon? Given our plentiful stories of forlorn or vengeful ghosts, I get the impression that persistence of a spirit is often the result of painful or negative impulses or mind-states, like the desire for revenge, an unrequited passion, or an inability to accept a difficult reality. Being pulled into a future existence (of some sort) by such unresolved issues seems to me like remaining in bondage. I hope that before I die I have managed to thoroughly examine my mind and heart and resolve anything that might clutch me to its bosom in the transition of death.

Still, it appears that troubled ghosts are not the only kind of spirit. Tibetan tulkus are supposedly the result of spiritual adepts who deliberately chose, upon death, to send their life-energy toward a rebirth in another human form (starting from the moment of conception). The advantage of doing this is that the reborn person inherits some of the dead adept’s spiritual strength and wisdom, and their ardent intention to be of benefit to others. It’s a “leg-up,” if you will, in the new being’s spiritual practice. If this is possible (and I am not saying it is), than it seems that a spirit can also be the result of selfless and positive impulses or mind-states, like a pure altruistic desire to be of service.

Should we aim to retain some kind of self-existence after death, especially if there is a potential to pay our good qualities forward into some other being (or beings)? I, for one, am not inclined to try, because I think this is a very tricky business. I strongly suspect that if we have a selfish motivation for lingering as a spirit or taking some kind of rebirth, we are enslaving ourselves – and I don’t think many of us will develop the spiritual mastery required to be free of all selfish motivation, especially during the transition of death.

If we can, instead, offer to pay our good qualities forward in an open-handed way, I think we will have all of our bases covered. That is, we can avoid lingering after death in the bondage of self-attachment, and we can also take advantage of any potential to put our life-energy to good use after our death. When we offer ourselves in an open-handed way, we are not expecting anything in return. We are not offering up the best we have only if we can be there to see it used. I don’t blame people for being rather obsessed with the possibility that they will have some degree of self-consciousness after death, it seems rather natural to wish for such a thing. However, in my experience self-concern is the recipe for suffering, while letting go of self-concern is liberation that allows for full life and intimacy with the universe. I view the transition of death as the ultimate opportunity for letting go of self-concern. And what happens after death? It is impossible for me to imagine the fate of human beings after death as anything but utterly mind-blowing and profound beyond imagining – because that’s my experience of the universe so far. Why would the nature of the universe change after death?

The Lesser Mâlunkyâputta Sutta, Sutta 63 of the Majjhima-Nikâya,

This is one good reason not to speak frankly. In fact I have great respect for many individuals who hold beliefs like the ones I describe, and I am sorry if I offend them. Still, I think that every once in a while it is good for each of us to speak our truth without restraint.

The Paradox of “Taking Refuge” in a Non-theistic Religion
Zen "Forms" (Established Ways of Doing Things) and How They Can Be Liberating