A Quick Note on Death

"Pale Blue Dot" image, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990

For the last year, I have, as with any sentient being in our planet’s history, grappled with the concept of death; I have felt, as I’m sure many of you have, that ultimate feeling of gloom–that inexorable heart-drop–which reflects our inevitable doom, and tried to come to terms with the fact that I, too, will rest my eyes one final time, my body settling once again to dust. As I have explored this rather interesting, if existential, concept, I have, unsurprisingly, come to an important conclusion (which has directed my life more than anything over these last few months), which I will share with you in this short, hastily-written piece.

In my Buddhist sangha, I have been taught the “Five Remembrances”, five statements that affirm the transience of ourselves and our loved ones, and reaffirm the importance of right action. These statements are (1) “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old”, (2) “I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health”, (3) “I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death”, (4) “All that I love and everything dear to me are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them”, and (5) “My actions are my only true belongings. I can not escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand”. While many seek out of religion (especially in old age, imprisonment, or sickness) the reassurance that our soul will, in one way or another, live eternally (and thus that we will live eternally), Buddhism does exactly the opposite: The point of “attaining enlightenment”, of being “Buddha” (awake), is to escape the samsara, which is the “Karmic cycle” of endless birth and death. Ending the samsara means dying, permanently. Above all, Buddhism denies the reassurance of life after death, and emphasizes the importance of right action and presence in the life we have now.

I have discovered, through both my sangha and my growing relationship with my transience, that there is no deeper meaning to death, and probably no life after death. But, perhaps, that is the point: We do not live forever, because we live. Death itself, semantically, is an abrupt and final ending, yet perhaps it is better described as a return to a state we’ve already known for eternity (indeed, we were dead before we were alive). That we are alive is itself the break, the short appearance of a bright yellow sun through a cloud of darkness, the small island of emotion and memory amongst an infinite sea of colorless nothing. And for that, perhaps the “secret” to life (there is, admittedly, none, but this knowledge certainly is important) is this recognition: We are lucky enough to have reached the time in which our minds, our feelings, our consciousness, exist. We are unlike the countless other hypothetical sentient beings, whose nonexistent souls, yet to be or never to be born, ride listlessly in the aether of nothingness. We are alive. And for that reason, we should take advantage of it: We should live, knowing that death is at our doorstep.

        Astronomy and my Buddhist sangha have taught me much about this ultimate defeat. Astronomy imposes upon us our unimpressiveness, our relative lack of physical importance, while Buddhism reminds us that the key to life is not living long, or living forever (in my sangha, one year of life is good just as seventy years of life is good–that is what “Oneness” is to us), but rather being present (“awake”), and doing good. Active grappling with death, as I have so lucidly experienced, is no easy endeavor, but I nevertheless encourage you all to force yourself to remember that you, too, will die, and that everything you know and love now, will eventually cease to exist. It will, as it has with me, remind you of the importance to cherish–but not to obsessively want or crave to keep–those you love, those around you, and even those not around you. Perhaps when death is thought of not as an abstraction or an entrance to a euphoric eternity, but as the ultimate stage to which every one of us indefatigably approaches, we can commit to each other–no matter our differences–the fruits of life and presence: kindness, respect, humility, love, patience, openness. And perhaps we can recognize that we all, whether directly or indirectly, rely upon each other, are connected to each other, and will join each other in death eventually. For right action is, indeed, that fifth Remembrance: Our actions are the ground upon which we stand.

*I have decided to add this as the first piece in "The Unity Project", an Essays by William project aimed at demonstrating our oneness as a people through analyses of politics, life, philosophy, death, and science. All pieces in "The Unity Project" will connect, in one way or another, to the spiritual teachings of astronomy and the religious teachings of my Buddhist sangha. Thank you all, as always, for reading. I am so grateful to have you all in my life, in one way or another.*