Won't you spare me over till another year
--Traditional American folk song
It's that time of life. People are dying all around me, and way too many of them are younger. The other day it was Ben E. King, composer of the magnificent "Stand By Me," and he was only 76, a mark I'll hit in less than three months.
I'm not in any hurry. As the knight in Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" tells his visitor, "My body is ready but I'm not" (of course it's an English translation of the Swedish). This time I'm living now, through a fluke of chronology, is the best of my life. I live in an exotic foreign land with a lovely woman by my side and, after many detours and side trips, I've found a vocation that satisfies, teaching English to Buddhist monks.
After many years of seeking spiritual answers to the deepest questions, I've come to the conclusion that now is all we have. It is my answer to poet Mary Oliver's question:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
This comes as no great epiphany, no enlightenment moment after an endless struggle. Words are too often only intellectual icing on a cake, and my cake is very tasty indeed.
It's not easy to see how anyone could believe in death as a stage on the way to something else, something better or worse depending on your ethical guidelines. The body is all we are, and when it dies along with our brain then all that counts as my "I" disappears. Science, which rules the roost on material matters, has never detected a scintilla of evidence for a mind, self or soul that exists independent of a body.
But some form of belief in life after death appears to be the default position for many people. A form of wish fulfilment? A comforting fable? For the various Christianities that look to the New Testament and church tradition for inspiration, there is a future after the body dies. Even here in a Buddhist country, the faithful put their hopes in reincarnation after death. Despite the Buddha's teaching of no-self, anatta in the Pali, a belief in rebirth grounds the tradition's explanation of kamma, what goes round comes round, the idea that good or bad deeds will receive their reward in another existence. Is it the same me that pays the price for thoughtlessness in this life that is punished in the next?
A number of scholars and researchers in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology now propose that the human brain evolved faculties of thinking that benefited our ancestors in the savannah, including one they call "theory of mind." This "tool" enabled humans to imagine intentions and make predictions about the behavior of unseen agents who might want to harm, and even eat them, a survival skill of the first order. Once a part of our neural anatomy, this cognitive development could not be turned off. We see minds everywhere, even in non-living things like cars that won't start or computers that malfunction. A corollary of this is we fabricate explanations for events and detect purpose in rootless causes to create a fantasy world of our own making. While theory of mind may have been adaptive, the numerous byproducts of it, from the belief that minds transcend death to the worship of gods in religious rituals may not be.
So goes the materialist mantra Rather than demi-gods, humans are no more than an unholy mix of bodies and brains with no more importance to the natural scheme of things than ants or the dodo bird. What does death matter but to make room for more life?
And yet... In addition to adaptive behavior like tool-making and cooperation within groups, the human brain has produced a cornucopia of byproducts, from consciousness and language to music, art and poetry. I love the speculations of philosophers and the rhythmic charm of rock and roll. The edifice of human-made culture in its many forms around the world is as awesome as sunrise over the Grand Canyon ("It's just a big hole," said my unimpressed five-year-old daughter).
For years I considered myself a dualist of the body/mind and pondered the mysteries of the Perennial Philosophy. I found wisdom and beauty in the mystical writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil. A member in good standing of the New Age, I shared the Eucharist with parishioners in Catholic churches around the world and I chanted in Hindu temples and meditated while facing the wall with a Zen sangha. No religious teaching was too outrageous for me to consider as a metaphor pointing toward God or being or the great void.
Is all religion a beneficial byproduct of cognitive evolution? No. And there's the rub. First, how you answer this question requires a definition of "religion," and mine is as big as the sky. For me (and for numerous scholars), religion is simply human activity, it's what people do, and it all falls under the rubric of culture that includes activities like sports, game, hobbies and so on. It's not history and it's not cosmology, and those who treat it as "natural philosophy" as it was called before the development of the scientific methods are as doomed as the dodo bird. But not all "religion" is good.
My standards are my own, influenced by a study of Liberation Theology in Latin American when religious activists in the late 20th century contested repressive governments with the moral armament of Biblical stories. For me, the goal of religion is the Kingdom of God where humans get along and care for one another, and refuse to bow to worldly power. The stories from different religious traditions are useful and inspiring, and can help motivate believers to bring religion down to earth. The thorn in the ointment is tribal religion, alive and all too well today, wherein one group of believers demonize another or try to convert them. This form of religion is usually accompanied by a hatred of the body and it seeks control over the bodies of its own and other tribes.
Which brings us back to death. Do brains die? Yes. Do human beings live on after death? Yes, in the hearts and memories of those who loved them. I was there for the death of my good friend Peter who died over 10 years ago from prostate cancer. I changed his diapers in the evenings of his final week and I kissed his cold cheek less than an hour after life had left his body. I will never forget him, nor will the memories of my parents and others close to me go away while this brain is still functioning. But even though I believe they no longer exist in some post-death realm, I don't have a problem encouraging others on the precipice of extinction with stories from their tradition about life after that which might give them hope and consolation.
I'm at that age in my life where I could keel over lifeless at any moment. I've lived with cancer for a dozen years but it will probably be something else that finally does me in. Whatever. I hope in those final moments I can say, as did Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Tell them that I've had a wonderful life."