By Jeff Farr
This piece offers a set of reflections on the Center's 2008 exploration of the theme, "Understanding Death, Appreciating Life." How is that a fear of death causes us to lash out with violent aggression? How might we come to see life and death as joyously intertwined? Jeff Farr is Publications Manager at the Ikeda Center.
You might suppose spending an entire year thinking and talking about death would be depressing. Not so, we found during the Center’s yearlong investigation into “Understanding Death, Appreciating Life.” This turns out to be a topic that naturally moves you to dig deeper into your own views on death and then life. It may not be easy going, but if you stick with it there comes a sense of satisfaction; it becomes enjoyable in a profound way. The reward is a new view of death and life. Something like starting over.
Our theme came from founder Daisaku Ikeda’s many lectures and writings on death, especially a key section of his 1993 Harvard University lecture. A couple of his main purposes in exploring this topic over the years have been to explicate the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of death, putting it in the context of modern thought, and to argue that a reexamination of what death means — toward a healthier, more holistic conception — may be just what we need to turn a significant corner in the history of human thought.
The backdrop for Ikeda’s investigation of death has been what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls our “century of megadeath,” with as many as 188 million people dying in twentieth-century wars. Ikeda’s own experiences with war, as a teenager in Japan during World War II, add an urgency to his thinking. He often returns to the loss of his beloved brother Ki’ichi, in Burma during the war. After a tour in China, Ki’ichi had told him: “Daisaku, war’s not pretty to talk about. When you come right down to it, it’s people killing other people. And it’s unforgivable.” These words haunted the young Ikeda long after his brother’s death and became an impetus for his own struggle to come to terms with big issues like death and war, leading him toward Buddhist philosophy.
Buddhism, as Ikeda explains in Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth & Death, originated from one man’s similar quest to understand death and other core human sufferings. When Shakyamuni, the Buddha, witnessed at his palace gates examples of what Buddhism terms the four sufferings — birth, illness, aging, and especially death — he determined to seek understanding. His eventual conclusion was that all four are indispensable parts of life for all people. It is only our misperceptions of death and the rest as nothing but negatives that cause us pain. The thirteenth-century monk Nichiren later spoke of these sufferings as “adorning” humanity, adding pathos and great beauty to human life.
All life, at its core, is joyous, Buddhism teaches. It is forever moving energetically ahead. Death is part of this never-ending journey, helping to propel life forward, which makes death, too, an essential part of the joy. Without death, in fact, there can be no joy of life; part of the equation would be gone. Mary Catherine Bateson put it this way at the BRC in February: “We need to be able to walk into the forest and see that all of its beauty is intertwined with the process of death feeding back into the life of the forest.”
Unfortunately, what we tend to get in our culture is the segregation of death and life. A thick line is drawn. A raging, eternal war is imagined between them. Death becomes personified by Grim Reaper types like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, their motivation nothing but bloodlust. Death becomes demonic.
Ikeda believes that this gloomy take colors everything else: how we live as individuals, how we function as a society. An unhealthy view of death leads to unhealthy ways of living and myriad social problems. “Fear of death forms the basis for instinctual aggression,” he said at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1996.
Even megadeath, his argument goes, traces back to this central fear. An entire government can wind up basing itself on a fear that is essentially irrational — with tragic consequences for the people. Fear of death then feeds back into death on a massive scale, unnecessary and untimely.
Overcoming this fear becomes paramount for Ikeda. His thinking has much in common with that of neuroscientists, like Michael Gazzaniga, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, who say our ability to control our automatic fear responses — and produce reasoned responses instead — is one of the fundamental things making us human.
Perhaps overcoming this fear will be at the heart of humanity’s next stage of “growing up.” Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “The boy is a Greek; the youth, romantic; the adult, reflective.” For humanity to reach a maturation that would make possible global peace, fear needs to be supplanted with reflection — joyful reflection entailing joyful dialogue — on the big questions. Our year of “Understanding Death” convinced us a year is not enough. We hope the reflection has just begun.
Read the other articles and resources for the 2008 investigation.