Monday, March 1, 2010

A Comment on Afterlife

Bonnie, on her Original Art Studio blog (there's a link on my "Blogs I Read" list) asks the question, "Do You Believe in an Afterlife?"

Her question got a lot of people to weigh in with their comments, even me.

At first I resisted the temptation to leave a comment. It's too big a topic to address in the comments section of someone else's blog. In the end, though, I left a comment. Here is what I wrote:

Hi, Bonnie!

Wow. Big topic. But I cannot resist attempting to answer your question in such a laconic format, so here I go.

Quoting myself from last Monday's MindfulHeart post:

"I'm among those who recognize the fact that the vast majority of people throughout history have believed in some form of reincarnation. I'm not prepared to dismiss the vast majority of human experience simply because there's no scientific basis for ancient wisdom's belief in an afterlife.

And, perhaps, there IS is a scientific basis for such a belief...

Physicists say that some 90% of the universe is composed of dark matter about which we know very little.

Perhaps this dark matter hides heavenly realms?"

The Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation, and I'm willing to defer to his thinking on the matter. He's thought and written about this matter longer, harder, and with far more insight than I will ever be able to apply....

I'm happy to proceed in this life under the assumption that the actions I take today will affect future lifetimes. If this assumption proves to be true, my good behavior in this lifetime will pay off in future lifetimes. If the assumption proves to be wrong, I haven't lost anything valuable. Happiness, despite what corporations would like you to think, comes from deciding of your own free will to behave morally. 
That said, I don't give this sort of speculation too much thought. It's plenty difficult simply to be the kind, thoughtful, non-judgmental person I wish to be.

In the Nikaya Sutras when the Buddha was asked questions like this, he avoided answering them. Speculating about the unknowable can serve as a distraction from attending to issues that need more urgent attention, like loving your kids or spouse.

How karma works across lifetimes when there is no self to begin with—as Buddhists insist—well, this is one of those paradoxes that, in my mind, can only be true.

Is there an afterlife? Yes, but don't worry about it.

Work instead in this present moment to be the kindest person you can be.


C.M. Jackson said...

"Is there an afterlife? Yes, but don't worry about it."

this made me smile and put me on the right track-thanks!

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, CM. I'm glad you smiled and that this post helped put you back on track. Thank you for leaving a comment.

neighbor said...


truly! Maybe it's hard for most to admit they "don't know" - easier by far to pick an answer and cling to it. I'm not discounting that some have had experiences that inform them of something, but as you suggest, it's not something I worry about - just feel the mind's desire to grab on to something and meanwhile keep chewing the questions.

I tend to approach it as though there's not going to be another chance, so I'd better love as deeply, care as fully, learn as much, feel the ups and downs as honestly as possible - with the only certainty being that this life will end and hadn't I better make it a good one?

Not that I get there all the time (see me yesterday being frustrated with my teenager for example), but at least I'm inspired to keep on trying.

I love Bonnie's thought-provoking posts - answering questions helps me sort myself out too :-)

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Like C.M. Jackson, I was struck by your words, "Is there an afterlife? Yes, but don't worry about it." Succinct. Skillful. Sage.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Neighbor. Thanks for leaving this comment. It's interesting that your response to this is that the idea of this being the only chance would inspire you to live deeply, care fully and feel honestly. It makes total sense, but my instinct tells me that most people would adopt a different view, something like, "What the hell? No one's watching, I'm gonna live the hell out of life and hope I don't get caught." That would, it seems, sum up the moral code of Wall Street these days.

If, as the Buddhists say, our actions will influence future lives (as I tend to believe) those guys are going to be in for some difficult times paying back the money they've stolen.

Dan Gurney said...

Thanks, Bonnie. It's always seemed to me that the best way to get into heaven (if there is one other than the one we're in right now, right here) is to make our best effort to be kind to every being we encounter.

When we pass from this plane to the next whether we meet Peter, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, the Buddha, or Elvis or whomever, our kindnesses will weigh most.

steven said...

hey dan - here's what i know: while i am here as steven, i focus on bringing whatever goodness i can to the time i am given. after that my body returns to become something other, my fractal of the one soul reemerges elsewhere and the great present moment continues. thankyou for this thoughtful and helpful post dan. doors and windows open wider when i visit here. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, steven, you've picked different words to say almost exactly what I mean. It's exactly about, as you say, "bringing whatever goodness i can to the time i am given."

Our focus is here and now doing all we can to increase joy and happiness while relieving suffering both inside and outside.

Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment. And I feel the joy shining in your blog. I really do. It's been a positive influence on my days.

Christian Gerike said...

The current idea in physics of the possibility of an incredible, if not infinite, amount of parallel universes is also food for thought as to just where one might go after leaving this universe . .

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Christian—

Yes. Exactly. When you read the Buddhist Sutras that talk in great detail about all the heavenly realms, it leaves one wondering just what might me out there in the part of the universe we know is there, but cannot see or know much about (at least from our telescopes). I, for one, put some stock in the people who've gone within to discover what's not visible to our eyes.

Small Footprints said...

Thank you for this post ... I found it, and the subsequent discussion thread, very interesting.

I tend to believe that this life is all we get and that our purpose is to find joy and happiness in it. I suppose that some people might adopt an attitude of do anything and hope that they don't get caught but then, those people don't really understand the true nature of joy and happiness, which, in my opinion, can't happen if we do harm.

A great, thought-provoking post ... thank you!

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Small Footprints.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree that our purpose is to find (and share) joy and happiness in life. Happiness seems most available to me when I work to create the conditions for happiness for those people, plants, and animals around me. It's a byproduct of moral behavior, a fact that our culture does not manage to convey very well.

I'm glad to have prompted some thought!!

Now, I hope you'll consider the possibility that the Dalai Lama (and many other people who've gone deeply into the matter) might know a thing or two about the existence of realms other than--and beyond--the one with which we are all familiar, this one, here, on this earthly plane.

Christian said...

A few "facts" from the latest issue of Science News regarding composition of the universe:

72.8% - dark energy
22.7% - dark matter
4.5% - ordinary matter

We live in, experience, the realm of "ordinary matter". Surely it is illusion to believe that we know, much less understand, what is going on.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Christian--

That's way more detailed than I knew. Thank you for this! I didn't know that the main thing is dark energy. Of course, I have not idea about what it is I don't know, but it seems reasonable to assume this "dark energy" is as likely to be something absolutely wonderful, and something we might know about someday after passing out of this world of ordinary matter.... who knows?