View of Life After Death
Presented at HUU Meeting
January 7, 1990
Wade asked me to talk, for not more than seven minutes, on my view of life after death. To do it justice I think I would need to go into my whole philosophy of being, and there is not time for that. But I’ll make a stab at it anyway.
I was given for Christmas this diary of H. L. Mencken, the so-called sage of Baltimore. I quote from the introduction by the editor:
“He had not a vestige of belief in an afterlife, but wrote, catalogued, and left behind him an enormous quantity of records so that those who came after him in this life would have an accurate picture of him.”
Now to me those records are Mencken’s afterlife, or rather a small part of it. Everything he wrote in life, everything he did, that had an influence on others, an influence on a fly or a rock, was part of his afterlife. That influence goes on and on, like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. It becomes a part of the universe, as of course was Mencken himself; and, of course, as are you and I.
Each of us is a part of the universe. (I don’t like that word “part.” Maybe “portion,” or “fragment,” or even “aspect” would be better.) Each of us is a portion or an aspect of the universe, just as is a mountain, or a sea, or, and this is a better comparison, a cloud. It is quite apparent to us that a cloud continually changes, from moment to moment, just as we do, just as a mountain does. Yet the cloud, and we, and the mountain, are portions of the Universe.
Our every act, our every thought, is a fragment, or an aspect, of the continuing and infinite experience of the universe. I think that is our afterlife.
A Zen master named Shunryu Suzuki, who moved from Japan to California, looked at the 1300-foot waterfall in Yosemite National Park. The water seemed to fall slowly because of the height, and it separated into a curtain of small streams and individual drops. He wrote, in part, as follows:
“And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling. It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling. . .
“Before we were born we had no feeling; we were one with the universe. . . After we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You attach to the feeling you have without knowing just how this kind of feeling is created. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.”
I think that approaches how I feel about life, and about life after death. We were not individuals before we were born, although we were there, in a few billion ancestors. And I don’t think we will be individuals after we die. But we’ll be there, everything that we have been will be there as part of the continuing experience of the universe.
I think I have come to terms with death. I believe I have no fear of death.
Have you ever wondered what you would think about if you were at 30,000 feet in a plane that was hopelessly crippled and diving to certain destruction.
I have often thought that in a situation such as that I would face death calmly. I would be thankful that I had been a conscious part — for a little while — of this great, mysterious universe. I would feel that I as an individual would be no more, but that my life and everything that I had been or done would go on forever as a continuing influence in the universe, just as a dying star is forever a continuing influence in the universe. I would rejoin the great river — the great river that is the universe and which, of course, I have really never left.
I made the mistake of trying to give this talk without notes. I would, I believe, have been much more effective if I had read it well and forcefully, I should have known this type of talk does not lend itself – at least for me – to delivery without the manuscript in front of me.
I don’t like the word “part” because I don’t believe in parts when speaking philosophically about being. I don’t believe, in an ultimate sense, that there are individuals. With Heraclitus I feel that the universe is all one, and in constant flux. Of course in our everyday existence we have to act as though the world is made up of individuals because we cannot but view ourselves as individuals- In the same manner, for practical purposes of the marketplace, or for putting a man on the moon, we need to employ mathematics. But mathematics, I believe, has failed to have any appreciaable influence in solving the mysteries of creation and being. It enables us to measure the speed of light and speculate on the distance to far-out galaxies, and even to theorize about a “big bang” and black holes, but in the end all the mysteries remain – what was there before the “big bang,” what is the answer to the many infinities, is there a beginning, is there an end. The reason mathematics has failed, I believe, is that it is an arbitrary tool devised by man to try to measure things; and in an ultimate philosophical sense the world is not measurable? it is not measurable because it is not made up of individuals.
Suzuki’s analogy, like most analogies, is imperfect. It is hard for us to equate a living thing, especially a human being, with an inanimate something like a drop of water. We don’t think of a drop of water as having feeling; although I think it can be argued that feeling is a matter of degree for everything that we view as an individual thing. What I was trying to say, I think, is that we should glory in being alive and having feeling and being conscious for however brief a time; that we should accept that this “gift” is not permanent; that we must always accept the bad with the good; that in the end everything is in balance.
And that brings up another equally important aspect of my philosophy that this paper does not touch on. As you know, I believe in an ultimate justice, a law of compensation, so that pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, hope and despair, are balanced for living things. Thus my sister, who died when she was two, not only missed out on the joys of growing up and of adulthood, but also the pains, the self-doubts, the despair.