I can’t say with any­thing like cer­tainty that I know what hap­pens to us when we die. To some extent I think it might be a bit like the reverse of what hap­pened at birth, only a bit more rapidly and drastically.

Of course, what hap­pens at birth is itself an inter­est­ing ques­tion; after all, fetuses are viable before birth, capa­ble of liv­ing with­out the womb. You have to go back a num­ber of weeks to find a fetus that can’t sur­vive on its own. What’s intrigu­ing is that you don’t get signs of coher­ent aware­ness, of a string­ing together of con­scious­ness into the nar­ra­tive that calls itself I, until well after the baby has come into the world.

Death, on the other hand, can be abrupt. It can just as eas­ily be a grad­ual process, one that hap­pens slowly enough for every­one to get used to the idea. I have a feel­ing that grad­ual deaths are eas­ier for the loved ones to deal with.

From another per­spec­tive, though, we’re really dying all the time, in the sense that the per­son I was a minute ago — or an hour or a day ago — is not the same as the per­son that I am now. Even rel­a­tively minor events have changed my per­spec­tive, so it can be argued that the past me is dead in one sense. However, there is his­tory, there is a con­ti­nu­ity, there is that con­tin­u­ing motion of con­scious­ness whose entire job is to join together dis­crete, dis­parate events and sen­sa­tions into a beaded string of appar­ent wholeness.

There’s a rea­son for all this phi­los­o­phy in this post.

If the emer­gence of per­son­al­ity is an ongo­ing process, log­i­cally it can be traced back­ward until you start unweav­ing the roots of that per­son­al­ity. I’ve done that with a cou­ple of things in myself, specif­i­cally my intel­lec­tual curios­ity and my sense of humor. There are two other things I can trace pretty read­ily. One is my inter­est in the German lan­guage and cul­ture; the other is my love of Godzilla movies.

I went to Berlin (still West Berlin, back then) when I was five years old. I don’t recall a whole heck of a lot from that trip, as you might expect, though I was struck by the odd sounds of European sirens, the cramped bus­tle of the U-​​Bahn (Unterstrassenbahn, sub­way), the old world archi­tec­ture, and the way that com­mer­cial prod­ucts were dif­fer­ent from their American coun­ter­parts. There’s a lot more, but it doesn’t bear repeat­ing here. The point is that in later years these expe­ri­ences and impres­sions would serve to fuel my inter­est in tak­ing German lan­guage classes, since it is the lan­guage of my ances­try, at least on the distaff side. We went there to visit my mater­nal great-​​grandparents.

Godzilla movies, on the other hand, descended from my pater­nal lin­eage. They’re ter­ri­ble, of course; not only are the dubbed voices famously awk­ward and hope­lessly mis­matched, but the effects are truly bad. The sto­ries are thinly writ­ten moral­ity plays cau­tion­ing humans against hubris, and usu­ally have a dash of anti-​​radiation panic thrown in for sea­son­ing. And the mon­sters … well. Just guys in rub­ber suits. But that’s the point. Imagine, just imag­ine, that you report for work each day, put on a goofy (if uncom­fort­able) cos­tume, and spend the morn­ing stomp­ing the crap out of intri­cately detailed balsa wood minia­ture build­ings. If that’s not a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of joy, I’m not sure what is.

It was my mater­nal grand­mother who led me to Germany and a greater appre­ci­a­tion of my her­itage there, and it was my pater­nal grand­mother who first sub­jected me to Godzilla. (That was in a movie the­ater in Needles, California when I was eight or so; she sat beside me and cheered “Go get ’im, Godzilla”, laugh­ing as loudly as I did, hav­ing a hell of a good time.) These dis­crete aspects of my per­son­al­ity did not exist before those two women brought them into my life, and those two women are dead now. They died within a month of each other, this year.

In nei­ther case was it a sur­prise. There had been time for every­one to be aware of what was hap­pen­ing, and to pre­pare for it as best we could. In this regard, I believe we were for­tu­nate. I don’t imag­ine I was bet­ter pre­pared than any­one else.

Buddhism has a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at death — at least, the canon­i­cal ver­sions of Buddhism do. One view holds that there’s some­thing remark­ably akin to rein­car­na­tion. This view is preva­lent with Tibetan Buddhist vari­ants in par­tic­u­lar. The other view uses the term rebirth instead of rein­car­na­tion. The dif­fer­ence is sub­tle; in rebirth, per­son­al­ity is not passed into another body, just ten­den­cies or pat­terns of behav­ior. With rein­car­na­tion, some­thing akin to a soul is passed along instead.

Both of these views owe their exis­tence at least in part to where Siddhartha Gautama spent his life. The Indus River val­ley is the cra­dle of Hinduism, which teaches the doc­trine of rein­car­na­tion. However, another key teach­ing in Buddhism is imper­ma­nence, which log­i­cally must pre­clude the notion of a soul. So Buddhists might have to tread a very care­ful line, bal­anc­ing the idea of rebirth or rein­car­na­tion against a phi­los­o­phy that essen­tially under­mines the very idea.

I don’t believe in either rein­car­na­tion or rebirth. I don’t see any way by which either could be pos­si­ble. So from my per­spec­tive, my grand­moth­ers are not merely dead; they aren’t even around in essence any more, being born into another body; nor are they sit­ting on a cloud, harps in hands, knit­ting their brows and tsk-​​tsking at how thor­oughly wrong I am. The stand­ing waves of their lives have troughed and ebbed, leav­ing behind wet sand and slowly fad­ing footprints.

Nonetheless, they per­sist in other ways, through my DNA, and through the ten­den­cies and pref­er­ences they passed to me by exam­ple and instruc­tion. This is, ulti­mately, all that any of us can leave behind. The extem­po­ra­ne­ous German lan­guage instruc­tion from one, the love for gooey but­ter cake from the other — these are moments we’d shared, events that con­tinue to rip­ple through the froth of time into the present through my con­scious­ness, impres­sions of which I pass along to oth­ers here. Eventually my own stand­ing wave will break on the shore of time as well, and still oth­ers will recall being affected by some event or other from my own exis­tence. This is as close to rebirth as I know how to come.

Despite my non­be­lief in gods or souls, though, I find myself at ease with these deaths, recent though they both are. That’s because I was for­tu­nate enough to encounter a phi­los­o­phy that allowed me to under­stand some­thing impor­tant about life — or more accu­rately, some­thing about the way I per­ceive it. That shift in per­cep­tion, encap­su­lated in the sec­ond noble truth*, was left behind some 2500 years ago, and con­tin­ues to alter the human sphere of expe­ri­ence today.

And rather than fill me with a sense of hope­less­ness or defeat, I find myself expe­ri­enc­ing things more keenly and more vitally now, par­tic­u­larly when I pon­der the big ques­tions — such as how a million-​​Mark ban­knote came into my pos­ses­sion; or how I con­tinue to be filled with glee every time Godzilla flat­tens another pagoda.

It is my wish that we may all truly under­stand how ephemeral human exis­tence is, and com­port our­selves appro­pri­ately in that understanding.

* Roughly, that dis­sat­is­fac­tion, unhap­pi­ness and suf­fer­ing are rooted in the belief that any­thing is eter­nal, per­ma­nent, or unchanging.

I was primed for Buddhism — all unawares — by the same grand­mother that gave me Godzilla, by the way. Spending part of my child­hood sum­mers vis­it­ing her and my grand­fa­ther, I would watch the old TV series Kung Fu. Many years later, watch­ing the show again, I was struck at how com­pletely its bla­tantly Buddhist evan­ge­lism had sat­u­rated my con­scious­ness. The lessons from that series are still rel­e­vant, despite the way David Carradine broke his own wave on the shore.


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