Attachment and Facing the Fear of Death

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Journal of an 18 years old girl on fear of death
  3. My Response
    1. Buddha’s solution to the fear of death
      1. The Law of Dependent Origination
      2. The Path to Nirvana – End of Cycle of Birth and Death
    2. Nachiketa’s Solution to the Fear of Death
      1. Two Paths of Preya (pleasure) and Shreya (ultimate happiness)
      2. Role of Shrutis/Upanishads as a Means of Self Knowledge
      3. Journey to Self Knowledge
      4. Liberation/Moksha from the Jaws of Death
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

In response to my article “Self Inquiry: Have you questioned Death?“, an 18 years old girl who is a member of the Facebook Psycho-Philosophy Inquiry Study Group I run, wrote in her journal about her fear of death and how she would like to go beyond it. In this article I am reproducing her journal and my response to it so that readers can know that it is possible to live without the fear of death.

Journal of an 18 Years Old Girl

Death: My Greatest Fear!

We all have to die one day. No one wants to die and no one knows when and how are they going to die. It’s a sudden phenomenon. It’s the ultimate truth that we all have to die and it’s also true that there is no new life till there is no death. I have an extreme fear of death. I don’t know how and when will I face death. ‘Death is not by choice’! Death is the end of every breath, every thought, feelings, everything. Everything will end in a splash of a second. It happens in a blink of our eyes.”What will I feel when I’ll count my last breath”? “Will I die with immense fear”? “Will I feel beyond fear”? What is going to happen? These questions will remain until I don’t face death. Whenever we face something we get to know what it is completely. At that moment these questions transform into reality, or we can say we get the answers to these questions. Whenever we hear something about death, or we hear that someone died, why do we feel sorrow? Why do we cry after someone’s death when it’s known that every single being to die?”Why death creates sorrow and fear”? ‘Is it something like a curse, or is it something beyond our happiness’? I literally want to know: “what death actually is”?

My Response

You have written this journal after reading the blog that I posted in this group: Self Inquiry: “Have you questioned Death?” So, if you have read the blog in-depth, you would have seen that all the characters in the blog who were concerned with death decided to devote their whole life to inquire into it. The characters got different answers, but they all realized that which is beyond death. The question is whether you too are willing to devote your entire life to reach the answer to this question.

While the historical characters mentioned there – Nachiketa and Buddha – started with a similar quest of finding a way out of suffering and death, they found different answers. Regardless of their final understanding, what remained common to both is that the cause of suffering is attachment to the world of eternally changing forms.

Buddha’s Solution to the Fear of Death

Buddha found that there is “No-self” anywhere. The concept that there is an inherent self anywhere is an ignorance. The body-mind-intellect are all like parts of a machine but there is no self or soul to be found anywhere when one sees deeply. So when the illusion of self ceases there is only this vast nature which is a constant field of change and flow. Life is like a river of nature which is constantly flowing.

Shortly after Buddha got enlightened before he started teaching, he is said to have undergone the following reflection:

“Monks, the thought arose in me thus: “This truth which I have realized is profound, difficult to see, abstruse, calming, subtle, not attainable through mere sophisticated logic.

“But beings revel in attachment, take pleasure in attachment and delight in attachment. For beings who thus revel, take pleasure and delight in attachment, this is an extremely difficult thing to see: that is, the law of conditionality, the principle of Dependent Origination, Moreover, this also is an extremely difficult thing to see: the calming of all conditioning, the casting off of all clinging, the abandoning of desire, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana. If I were to give this teaching and my words were not understood, that would simply make for weariness and difficulty.”

This paragraph shows that attachment is the main cause of suffering. It also mentions the way out of suffering, which he calls Nibbana (Nirvana). The method to attain Nirvana according to Buddha is to understand how the world and suffering arises. He says Nirvana can be attained by understanding the law of Dependent Origination.

The Law of Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination (DO) cycle is a description of life- or world-evolution which shows the universe functioning according to the natural processes of growth and decline, ceaselessly unfolding at the dictates of cause and effect. So what is this Dependent Origination (DO). It is made up of twelve links of cause and effect.

  • With Ignorance as condition, there are Volitional Impulses.
  • With Volitional Impulses as condition, arises Consciousness.
  • With Consciousness as condition, arise Body and Mind.
  • With Body and Mind as condition, arise the Six Sense Bases
  • With the Six Sense Bases as condition, arises Contact.
  • With Contact as a condition arises Feeling
  • With Feeling as condition arises Craving
  • With Craving as condition arises Clinging
  • With Clinging as condition arises Becoming
  • With Becoming as condition arises Birth
  • With Birth as condition arises Aging and Death,
  • Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair

Thus is the arising of this whole mass of suffering. So to end all suffering, one has to end ignorance. According to Buddha the contrived process of craving and clinging, based on ignorance of that true nature of life, which causes the mistaken perception of and attachment to a self—’creating a self with which to clog up the flow of nature.’ This is a life bound by ignorance, lived with clinging, in bondage, in contradiction with the law of Nature, and lived with fear and suffering.

The Path to Nirvana – End of Cycle of Birth and Death

So Buddha’s solution to going beyond fear of death is to remove the basic ignorance that there is an inherent self. The notion of self is nothing but attachment to some aspect of the ceaseless flow of nature and trying to make it permanent. The notion of self starts the whole process of cause and effect resulting in the ceaseless cycle of birth and death of body which leads to suffering. The Enlightened one according to Buddha is one who knows this principle of cause and effect called Dependent Origination.

The path to Nirvana with respect to DO can be said to be this:

  • With the complete abandoning of Ignorance, Volitional Impulses cease.
  • With the cessation of Volitional Impulses, Consciousness ceases
  • With the cessation of Consciousness, Body and Mind cease.
  • With the cessation of Body and Mind, the Six Sense Bases cease.
  • With the cessation of the Six Sense Bases, Contact ceases.
  • With the cessation of Contact, Feeling ceases.
  • With the cessation of Feeling, Craving ceases.
  • With the cessation of Craving, Clinging ceases.
  • With the cessation of Clinging, Becoming ceases.
  • With the cessation of Becoming, Birth ceases.
  • With the cessation of Birth, Aging and Death, Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair cease.

The following quotes by Buddha give an idea of the importance Buddha gave to DO as the law of arising and cessation of the world of suffering:

“Whether a Tathagata” appears or not, this condition exists and is a natural fact, a natural law; that is, the principle of conditionality “The Tathagata, enlightened to and awakened to that principle, teaches it, shows it, formulates it, declares it, reveals it, makes it known, clarifies it and points it out.”

And further he says,

“When a noble disciple thus fully sees the arising and cessation of the world as it is, he is said to be endowed with perfect view, with perfect vision; to have attained the true Dhamma, to possess the initiate’s knowledge and skill, to have entered the stream of Dhamma, to be a noble disciple replete with the purifying knowledge, one who is at the very door of the Deathless.”

Nachiketa’s Solution to the Fear of Death

Nachiketa, on the other hand, is a character in the Katha Upanishads, so he talks about finding the true Self that is beyond birth and death. According to Upanishads and Vedanta, our true Self is never born and it never dies. Our true Self is that which witnesses or is aware of all the changes that happen in our body/mind/intellect, without ever getting involved in these changes or without getting affected by them. How does one come to know about one’s Eternal Self?

Two Paths of Preya (pleasure) and Shreya (ultimate happiness)

In the beginning of his instruction, Yama, the Lord of Death, instructs young Nachikaeta about two paths : The path of preya or pleasure and the path of shreya or goodness.

One thing is shreya (the good) and (quite) different is preya (the pleasant). Leading to different ends as they do, they both bind man. The good befalls him who accepts the good, but falls away from the goal who chooses the pleasant. (Katha Upanishad, 1st Mantra, Canto 2)

The term preya means that which is pleasant, immediately attractive; the term shreya means that which conduces to true welfare, which is ultimately beneficial. Talking about attachment with respect to these two paths, Yama, further says

Both shreya and preya approach man; the dhira (wise man), examining the two (well), discriminates between them. The wise man verily prefers shreya to preya; but the foolish man chooses preya through love of gain and attachment. (Katha Upanishad, 2nd Mantra, Canto 2)

So, from the beginning itself, it is made clear that there are two ways of living in the world. One way is to be attached to pleasures got through objects (preya) and the other is to the path of ultimate happiness (shreya). There is a choice which each one must make between these two paths.

This choice is necessary because one has to penetrate the illusion of the world as seen by the senses. Yama says that death is for those who think that the only reality is that which our senses show.

The truth of the hereafter does not shine before that child (childish person) who is inattentive, and befooled by the delusion of wealth. “This world (seen by the senses) is and there is no other”—thinking thus, he falls into my (death’s) clutches again and again. (Katha Upanishad, 6th Mantra, Canto 2)

Role of Shrutis/Upanishads as a Means of Self Knowledge

Yama seems to be saying that the world as we see through our senses is a delusion. So there must be a way to penetrate this delusion and find the real. For Buddha, the ignorance could be penetrated by insight gained through reasoning and understanding the process of Dependent Origination. But in Vedanta, it is not reasoning that can give insight into the nature of reality. As Yama says,

This (Atman) can never be well comprehended if taught by an inferior person, even though variously pondered upon. Unless taught by another (who has realized his oneness with It), there is no way (to comprehend It). Subtler than the subtlest is It, and beyond tarka or logical reason. (Katha Upanishad, 8th Mantra, Canto 2)

I have covered the topic on “Why Shrutis are the Final Authority?” in one of my previous articles where I have given the reason why in Advaita Vedanta, reality can be understood only by the shrutis/Upanishads when taught by a teacher who is a realized being. And what reality do the shrutis finally reveal?

The discerning man (knows that he) is not born nor does he die; he has not come into being from anything; nor has anything come into being from him. This (Self of man) is unborn, eternal, everlasting, and ancient; It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. (Katha Upanishad, 18th Mantra Canto 2)

The teachings of the Upanishads reveal that eternal Self which is the essence of everyone. The body that we take to be ourselves is nothing but a superimposition on this real Self just like a mirage seen in the desert. The body dying has no effect on the Self just as the presence or absence of mirage water has no effect on the desert sand.

If the killer thinks that he is killing, and the killed thinks that he is killed, both of them do not know that It (the Self) kills not nor is it killed. (Katha Upanishad, 19th Mantra Canto 2)

Journey to Self Knowledge

Like in the case of Buddha, the first aspect that was discussed with Nachiketa was attachment (path of preya). The path of goodness (shreya) would lead Nachiketa to the goal whence there is freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

But he who is possessed of right understanding, with manas (mind) held and ever pure, reaches that goal whence there is no birth (return to worldliness) again. (Katha Upanishad, 8th Mantra Canto 3)

Like Buddha gave the twelve links of Dependent Origination as a means to reach Liberation, Nachiketa was given a similar path. The state, which is to be attained (through the spiritual journey), is a journey which begins with the sense-organs which are gross, and proceeds through comparatively subtler and subtler aspects—that state is to be realized as the pratyagātman, the inner Self. In order to convey this truth, the Upanishad proceeds as follows.

The sense-objects are higher than the sense-organs; the manas (mind) is higher than the objects; the buddhi is higher than the manas; the mahān ātmā (great self) is higher than the buddhi.(Katha Upanishad, 10th Mantra, Canto 3)

The avyakta (undifferentiated nature) is higher than the mahat (mahān ātma); the Puruŝa (the infinite Self) is higher than the avyakta. There is nothing higher than the Puruŝa; that is the finale, that is the supreme goal. (Katha Upanishad, 11th Mantra, Canto 3)

Liberation/Moksha from the Jaws of Death

For the one who completes the journey from the senses to the final Self

By realizing that Ātman which is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable, similarly without taste, eternal, without smell, beginningless and endless, (even) beyond the mahat, and immutable, one is liberated from the jaws of death.(Katha Upanishad, 15th Mantra, Canto 3)

Conclusion

And finally, for readers who have made it to this point in the article, there is a treat in store for them and for me, from the Katha Upanishad

The intelligent person, having heard and related this perennial story of Nachiketā as told by Death (Yama), is glorified in the world of Brahman. (Katha Upanishad, 16th Mantra, Canto 3)

It’s possible to be free from death !

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