Reflections on The Path – Part 10

-what’s important about these various attitudes?
-still haven’t raised question of truth
-what’s the best attitude and why?
-affirmation of central importance of liberty and diversity

In the talk from Mexico that I’ve been quoting, Silo notes how variable are our positions about death, how they not only change over time but also according to the situations in which we find ourselves. He also observes that this variability in itself could be excessive and cause confusion and disharmony in our daily experience.  Permanent or variable, and no matter what they are, our attitudes in front of death are important. They may have no impact on if or how life continues beyond death (whatever that means). But if we look, we might be able to discern their impact on how we live our lives. 

However, like that famous advice from Pascal which I mentioned earlier, this sort of utilitarian approach to transcendence may leave one feeling unsatisfied. In the case of Pascal’s wager, he was of course, hedging his bet on the chance of winning heaven, or at least avoiding the flaming pit. We, on the other hand, are not focusing on the afterlife, but rather on the impact these beliefs can have on us while we are still alive. So, while it may be more common (at least for the believers) to consider the impact our life has on our afterlife, it may prove surprisingly rewarding to give some thought to the impact our afterlife (or beliefs about it) can have on our life.

On numerous occasions, Silo explained that, within our communities, we weren’t promoting a particular interpretation of all this. Instead, he insisted that these differences of beliefs about death, like differences in lifestyles, cultures, biology, etc. should not only be tolerated, but treated with deep respect. Perhaps we can even say that they should be celebrated, as we celebrate other aspects of our diversity. That call for diversity is certainly something central to all of his teaching (social, political, or spiritual). 

In a very different context (that of universal humanism) Silo wrote: “Humanists seek not a uniform world but a world of multiplicity: diverse in ethnicity, languages and customs; diverse in local and regional autonomy; diverse in ideas and aspirations; diverse in beliefs, whether atheist or religious; diverse in occupations and in creativity. (Letter 6. Statement of the Humanist Movement) And as he explained, this is an affirmation not only of a diversity of races, ethnic groups, religions, cultures, and nations, but also, the diversity of individuals. 

Some of you have been around long enough to recall how, at one point, we used to declare our understanding of Silo’s teaching with these words: “I am free to believe or not to believe in god, I am free to believe or not to believe in immortality, but I can, and I must overcome suffering.” Be that as it may, it certainly seems that sooner or later (perhaps for most of us much later) we return to the central knot of suffering, i.e., to this question of life, death, and whatever else I believe there might be. Mortality? Transcendence but of what, where? Nothing? Something? Heaven? Hell? Immortality? And it can’t hurt to remember when discussing themes like that of center of existential suffering, that our suffering doesn’t remain inside us but spreads like a virus into the world through our interactions with others. As Silo said, talking about contradictions: “…and that suffering does not remain in me alone—it contaminates all those around me. This apparently individual suffering that arises out of personal contradiction winds up becoming social suffering.” (Talk at an Agricultural Collective Colombo, Sri Lanka, October 20, 1981 An Interchange with the Buddhist Sangha in Sarvodaya). And what bigger contradiction can there be than that between that deep vital impulse, the desire to live, and the apparent fact of the mortality of all living beings?

Celebrating the diversity of beliefs about our mortality of course does not mean all beliefs have the same consequences. Nor are all beliefs equally robust. At least not in my experience. I recognize that sometimes I believe one thing, and sometimes another. In those moments when I find myself thinking that death will mean the total loss of my friends, and enemies, my family, and acquaintances, in fact of all that is, has been, or will be, then I feel the future closing in on me, and my joy in living is, at least momentarily dampened, if not extinguished. 

When however, I consider that with my death what was my body will decompose, returning to nature all she has given me, then I do feel some kind of resignation and relief but not any kind of resolution of the underlying problem. In other moments, I believe that I will live on in others, in how I’ve impacted my loved ones and others. Then the feeling is different. I feel lighter, I have a real sense of satisfaction or at least hope. However even then, that core of suffering still persists, though in a more muted way. But in those perhaps less common moments, when I feel that I am a project that that not even death can stop, I start to both understand the knot of suffering, and also how it might be unraveled.