Sometimes when a friend unexpectedly dies we are so hit by the event that we are knocked from our moorings and are viscerally confronted by death. We may feel the loss of our friend intensely but also we feel deeply anxious about death and how little we understand and how little we are prepared. Upon this very issue sits the importance of religion. Without some answer to this great mystery we self conscious beings drift in existential crisis.
The Buddha talked a lot about happiness. And some Buddhists think that they can be happy by learning to just live in the present moment, be mindful and unattached. We learn to do this through various techniques meditation being primary. We blame our unhappiness on our monkey mind and we therefore just need to control our mind to be happy. Learn to turn off those bad thoughts or maybe learn to take the sting out of them by learning to detach from them. This is all very well. But isn't it a bit like sticking your head in the sand. Will all this self control really work when we are confronted by our own death or the death of those we love? We are intelligent self conscious beings who at some time must confront the mystery of death.
Religion has always provided comfort by providing answers to the question of death. Some religions say that we go to Heaven (or Hell) and other religions say we will be reborn in a cycle of reincarnation. There can be comfort is faith but there can also be doubt unless some how we can actually prove to ourselves this faith.
Both the idea of heaven and reincarnation are based on the idea that each of us humans have some sort of individual essence, called an atman or a soul, which is who we really are, and will go to heaven or move from body to body. This is an attractive idea. Buddhism comes out of a reincarnation believing culture and most Buddhists believe in some sort of reincarnation. Yet one of the foundational ideas of Buddhism, going right back to Shakyamuni is that there is no atman or soul. Now, how can this be a comforting idea? Yet this understanding underpins Buddhism and that the Buddha exclaimed that it is this understanding which truly has the ability to relieve our deep existential suffering. All the rest, mindfulness, non-attachment, etc., only temporarily relieve suffering but are also the practice foundation for a shift in understanding that is the true liberation, the true enlightenment.
In Zen we sometimes talk about "The Question of Birth and Death" sometimes it is simply called the "Great Matter". The Sixth Patriarch simply asked us to know our "true nature". This is all one question, how do we resolve the existential dilemma, the knowledge and fear of our own mortality when our whole being wants to live? Buddhism gives a completely radically different answer from that of the other religions. This answer comes out of radical perspective shift in which there is no individual who is born and dies. This perspective shift is to see the world without duality. This perspective shift is attained through meditation in a state called samadhi.
We Buddhists often say, "We suffer because of our ignorance." What are we ignorant of? We are ignorant of our True Nature and the relationship of this true nature with the rest of the natural world. Hakuin the great zen master said that to know our true nature is to know that our true nature is no nature. When we sit in meditation and go to the very depths of our being what do we discover? Do we discover that something we might call a soul? No! Everything just empties out and we disappear. Yet if consciousness remains- in Zen we sit with our eyes open so that consciousness will remain- our consciousness becomes a boundless mirror reflecting the world around without an I sitting behind the mirror.
I have a Buddhist scholar friend who speaks of the forbearance of emptiness. I guess many people have written of the difficulty of accepting our own emptiness. It can be depressing to think of our own emptiness but this is true only if there is still attachment to an idea of a self. If we truly drop all attachment and experience our own emptiness then it is like we have passed through a gate. Hakuin called this the "gate of the oneness of cause and effect" (Hakuin's Song of Zazen), but I say that we simply enter the perspective of non-duality. In this perspective our existential dilemma is resolved, our individual death is no longer a problem because there never truly has been an individual. We see all this, everything that is around us and including us, as all one life and not a collection of individual lives. In this experience of emptiness we may die as an individual but we are then reborn as the whole Universe.
This One Life was the Buddha's real discovery, not just a bunch of temporarily effective techniques to make us happy. It is this deep understanding of our harmony with all the whole Universe and also, in the day to day activity of our individual lives, a deep feeling of harmony with all the life on this planet, which brings a deep and abiding happiness.
I know that for most of us Buddhist practitioners, even those with a consistent meditation practice will never have that big experience which confirms what I am writing about. Yet it is that intuitive faith in this understanding, which is promoted by meditation practice, which brings the comfort that we need.