by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
William James suggests that the most central and recurrent theme of religion is the promise of immortality. Asian faiths might take exception to this statement, but when all the denials are exhausted, still there remains the undeclared presupposition of the continuance of the human spirit after death. True, this continuity takes an entirely different form in Asian religious thought than in the Judeo(?)-Christian-Islamic tradition where one is endowed with an 'immortal soul'. Yet still it is there.
Buddhism goes to great lengths to proclaim total agnosticism on the issue. What matters is liberation from the wheel of rebirth, and since questions of extinction or continuance do not pertain to that necessity, they are dismissed as distractions. Yet the concept of a wheel of rebirth itself necessitates a belief in an individual essence capable of passing through multiple deaths and births. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine how this sets the stage for a belief in some form of continuation of this essence beyond samsara.
Somewhere in the Zhuangzi a sage recommends we return to what we were before our mother and father were born. This is echoed in Zen where we are exhorted to see our 'original face' before our parents were born. In the case of the former, I get the impression that I am meant to return to utter non-existence. In the latter, it seems I am to discover an essence, the 'true self', the buddha-nature. And yet, in neither case am I able to comply. I simply see no way to honestly project understanding beyond birth and death.
Philosophical Taoism, initially relatively free of such preoccupations, quickly became a religious pursuit of immortality, both physical and spiritual. This inclination to save ourselves from the apparent finality of death is as strong today as it was then.
Commenting on Zhuangzi's statement that when the fire goes out "its ending is unknown", Fang Yizhi (1611-1671), a Buddhist monk, suggests we not worry about the source of the fire, but simply supply the best firewood. "For you must clearly grasp," he writes, "that when it comes to the other side — the yonder beyond — there is nothing you can avoid and nothing you can do; all you can do is your deeds on this side." His point is essentially Zhuangzian — we have no knowledge of what may or may not precede birth or follow death; all we can do is entrust ourselves to the Mystery. "What makes my life good, also makes my death good."
Yet Fang, whose commentary is entitled The Monk of Yaodi Roasts Zhuangzi, does not give Zhuangzi full credit. "I laugh and add," he writes, "Zhuangzi too makes something of the other side in an attempt to nourish himself on this side, cooking up a pot of Buddha-flesh for his own nutriment....It would be better to just say, 'Don't know', and leave it at that." (Ziporyn)
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