There's nothing like a big unhealty dose of acute bronchitis to get you contemplating lack of a future. Reality, so called, sharpens to an almost unbearable sequence of images, almost all of them surreal, such as leaving the doctor's office and stopping off at the health food grocer's, there only to be accosted by a scruffy looking customer who apologizes in order to catch your attention. What does he want, I ask. "Are you a Christian?" Hesitant, I ask myself, what is this, a come-on? A guy I know in my profession, a devout Catholic who once told me I could have as clients all the nuns in the archdiocese if only I'd convert, regularly enjoys making fools of street people, e.g. telling the pan-handlers seeking money for lunch, "I'll take you to a nearby restaurant," knowing they'll almost invariably beg off, some with honest admissions they're only seeking the cash for liquor or beer.
Feeling lousy, I couldn't think of anything to say except "No, I'm not," adding, in a cold voice, "and I am not religious, either." Had I felt better I would have said something blatantly atheist, but as it was, I only wanted to be left to my own devices. I just wanted to get rid of him, fast. Bob Dylan in a movie made the sound-over point that American capitalism uses fear to get us to buy things we don't really need, but I think he copped that notion from Burroughs, who said that our government and that nebulous thing we called, in the 60s, "the Establishment," put out conflicting messages ("believe this, don't believe this") in order to put us in a perpetual state of conflict, such that we buy things we don't need, thinking they'll distract us from our fears. Then, too, Eldridge Clever said that we would never have another revolution so long as the supermarkets stay open.
Dis-ease does something else to you, too: it heightens awareness of the truths of atheism, including the explanation that we are not conscious of life before birth, nor will we be conscious of it after death. Also, that the moment of birth is the time we begin to die. Dylan said that, too. One also finds less hostility to Christians who say that they're praying for you. Burroughs said "Pray in one hand, shit in the other; see which one fills up faster." Knowing from my awful cough, wheezing, and spitting gunk into tissue, at least three of my clients this week have said, "We're praying for you." I could set them straight, telling them, for example, that actual studies of prayer for seriously ill hospital patients showed not that prayer helped them but that it caused the prayed-for patients to die in greater numbers. But when you are seriously ill, you are not exactly in a mood to pick quarrels with people. And all of the drugs I've been taken have rendered me ineffective in debate.
Facing death is harrowing for some. I hope I can emulate the great Christopher Hitchens, dying of a brain tumor, incurable. I hope I can go out like he did, without retreat to belief, especially belief in that other country from which no one returns. But will I? Will I have that courage. To me, religion preys on people more than it prays for them. Like the Consul in John Huston's film of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, I would like to believe but I can't. The scene of the Consul going into a cathedral and staring up at one of those waxy-faced Madonnas so prevalent in Mexican churches especially, is pure John Huston (the director of the film). In interviews, the atheist filmmaker said he wanted to believe but could not, that he actually envied those who could. He had emphysema and eventually died of it. I hope my acute bronchitis goes away soon without putting my lights out just yet. But I ain't gonna pray it away. If I die after their prayers, they can always say God works in mysterious ways. There's no mystery to me. You're born, you live, and you die. Life is what you make of it, and you don't need deity to get there.
Excellent point. I think true for me too. By the fundamentalist definitions, I was clearly headed down the road to hell. Being freed of that, now all I need to think about is living the best life possible, and what kind of legacy I will leave when gone.
Here is a Philip Larkin Poem Aubade on the subject of the fear of death. The title is ironic—an aubade is a morning song, a happy song for awakening, but this is not joyous at all.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
That's not the way I understand the Buddhist notion of rebirth. (The term rebirth better describes the idea than reincarnation.) The personality does not carry over from one existence to the next because there is no individual self linking them. Eventually released from all desires and impurities, the mind or soul permanently escapes the long cycle of rebirths into eternal peace. Birth as a human being offers an opportunity to advance toward this state by casting off the fetters of desire and attachment to material things. Buddhism has no notion of sin or punishment for unskillful living.
Perhaps you are better informed about eastern religions than I am. I can only go by what I have read—I have never practiced any of them. Here you will find the explanation I have encountered:
Buddhism does not totally deny the existence of a personality in an empirical sense. It only attempts to show that it does not exist in an ultimate sense. The Buddhist philosophical term for an individual is santana, i.e., a flux or a continuity. It includes the mental and physical elements as well. The kammic force of each individual binds the elements together. This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomenon, which is conditioned by kamma, and not limited only to the present life, but having its source in the beginningless past and its continuation in the future — is the Buddhist substitute for the permanent ego or the immortal soul of other religions.
The notion of rebirth is common to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, but it takes different forms in each and within each religion there are different sects or schools holding various beliefs.
I suppose what I'm harping on about is rebirth/reincarnation as practised in India where a distinction is made twixt dacoits and brahims for example. The higher caste are further along the spiritual evolution path unto The Great Bliss.
Here you've lost me completely and I cannot connect what you say with the notions of Buddhism at all. Here is what the Buddha is recorded as saying in one of the sutras:
In this Teaching that is so well proclaimed by me and is plain, open, explicit and free of patchwork; for those who are arahants, free of taints, who have accomplished and completed their task, have laid down the burden, achieved their aim, severed the fetters binding to existence, who are liberated by full knowledge, there is no (future) round of existence that can be ascribed to them.
Comports to what I have read, Dr. Clark. Buddhists differ from Hindus mainly in refuting the notion of an individual soul. What reincarnates, if anything (and, yes, they do believe in a form of reincarnation) is "skandas," aspects of personality carried over from former lives. Gautama is said to have died telling his followers to doubt everything and everyone; examine things for yourself, make your own mind up about everything. As we know, most members of the monotheistic religions doubt nothing and are thus stuck in the quagmire of belief.
Some of this is expressed in the Buddha's Sermon to the Kalamas:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
That's it, Dr. Clark. Thanks for giving me the entire quotation. Words to live by!
I am not worried about a death bed conversion because I have no desire to go to heaven. The biblical description of heaven sounds really boring to me and I have no desire to see many of my relatives or acquaintances again. I just want to go to eternal sleep since sleeping is one of my favorite pastimes. I like the thought of returning to mother earth and maybe being part of a wildflower meadow. I have no intention of hastening death but I do not fear it either. I have had a wonderful life and I am getting a bit tired now.
Getting tired and growing more and more willing to slip into a permanent rest is something hard for young people to understand and accept. For many people illness takes them away before they can experience the later years, but others whose work is done, who have had a good life, may find less and less to look forward to as they go on and find it easy to accept the end. Henry Adams called it the Indian Summer of life and said:
“The Indian Summer of life should be a little sunny and a little sad, like the season, and infinite in wealth and depth of tone, but never hustled.”
In Washington State, same sex weddings may be held in the same way that I married my late wife. That is, the happy couple smokes a big joint and invites over a guy from the mail order church to come over and say a few words, my former resistance movement mentor. Then friends came over and learned gradually of the earlier wedding. But stoner weddings are going to be the wave of the future. I just hope everyone can get up the next day and realize it really happened.