Someone asked me recently what I believe happens to a person after death. Here is my response:
Thank you for the question. First I think we need to look into that word “believe”. It is a huge part of spiritual practice, at least from my point of view, and the cornerstone of an intelligent approach to life that we avoid believing anything—anything—to best of our ability. This is because belief lies outside of the moment. A belief is a mental construct, and as such is fixed and outside of the flow of Life. It is not necessary in my experience to believe anything in order to fully function in this world as a human being; in fact, someone who has a habit of believing things (as most do) is severely handicapped, and those who structure their lives around tightly held belief systems (again, as most do) often are either paralyzed or enraged when things happen that don’t fit within their preconceptions. And I doubt there is any place where people more willingly indulge their beliefs than around the inevitable approach of death. There is no hard evidence to lean upon about what happens when life ends, and so the matter is up for pure speculation. The thought of death is also frightening for people, so they are motivated to invent beliefs that soothe and put their fears to sleep. This is understandable, but it’s not skillful. Much better is to be present with the mystery we call “death” and the fear that tends to revolve around it, and see what we can see from our experience of Life in the moment.
I do not know what happens to a person after death. I doubt that anyone else does, either, though there are some who claim to know from a variety of motives. I also do not feel a need to know. This is because my overwhelming experience tells me that Life—the invisible something, whatever it is, that orders the world I perceive—is compassionate and good. Clearly to exist as a human is to endure tremendous pain, even for the fortunate ones, and our trials and troubles are nearly endless, but there is a deep magnanimity embedded within the way things are that works constantly towards our good. Many do not see Life this way, imagining that it is unkind, even cruel, but I suspect this is because they are not really looking. They are projecting from the heartless belief-systems of conditioned mind, and so can only see what is being done to them inside. Outside of conditioned mind it is easy to see that every obstacle, every scape and pitfall that comes our way, is there to teach us how to transcend the illusion of a separate self, how to love and be loved, and how to take real care of ourselves. I feel perfectly nurtured and supported by Life, despite the gut-wrenching challenges I have faced over time, and indeed because of them. Over the years I have come to an absolute faith in the compassion of the mysterious force that parents me so kindly, and a trust that everything that occurs is for my good. This is a faith based in experience, not in belief, and so is steady, reliable, and true.
When I consider my approaching death I see no reason to imagine that I will have a different experience of Life when that time comes. Death is not the opposite of Life; it is an aspect of Life, and as such how could it want the kindness and compassion that has accompanied every other circumstance of my life so far? This takes care of the question for me. What is going to happen when I die? I don’t know, but I trust it will be good.
The thing is, it is not Life that dies. How could that possibly be? It is the personality that dies, along with the body that has housed it so bravely all these years. The illusion of a separate self is discarded, but not the Life that has animated this human form. Life cannot die, because Life is what IS. There is no reason, then, to fear death, because it is only an illusion that dies. Now, for that illusion the thought of death is terrifying, because the time is coming when it will cease to be, and if I am identified with the personality then I will fear death necessarily, but not if I am joined with Life. Something wonderful and beautiful will happen when my last day comes, I feel certain. It won’t happen to “me” because “I” will no longer be there, but it will happen just the same. I’m hoping that awareness will survive the transition beyond the death of the personality because I really want to see what happens, but that’s not up to me. Whatever will be will be, and I know it will be good.
There is one more thought I’d like to interject before I let this topic go for now. I’ll admit that this borders on belief territory, but I’m going to throw it in anyway. I have a hunch that something of the spiritual work that I perform in this lifetime will be passed on to those who come afterwards. I’ve had a feeling for years—and that’s all it really is, a feeling—that the moving opportunity I have in this lifetime to wake up and end suffering is the gift of someone who has come before. Clearly this opportunity is the legacy of the Buddha and all those who have given their lives to the Dharma since he first offered it to humankind, and I receive tremendously from their efforts, but I’m speaking here of an even more direct relationship. Somewhere, somehow, someone chose to do the work of cleaning up their portion of the karma we all share, and I have inherited the results of his or her efforts. My life as I see it is the continuation of that work. The gratitude I feel is beyond words, and from this comes the desire to pass along the work to whoever is next in line. That’s my hunch, and if I’m right I hope the next person, whoever he or she may be, will have the willingness to seize the opportunity.