A critique of Todd May’s ‘Death’

Death (The Art of Living): Amazon.co.uk: May, Todd: Books

UPDATE 11 Dec 2020: I added a piece of Buddhist artwork depicting death meditation, and some details on the very significant role that mortality and impermanence play in various Buddhist traditions and practices.

Recently my wife and I re-watched the excellent series The Good Place, a comedy centred around the misadventures of four souls marooned in a confusing and flawed afterlife.  In addition to being simply funny and enjoyable, with great characters, the show stands out due to its surprisingly nuanced depictions of key concepts in ethics and moral philosophy.

One of the central characters of the show, Chidi Anagonye, is a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and ends up teaching the other characters about ethics in an effort to help them become better people.  Throughout the show he makes reference to numerous well-known works in ethics and moral philosophy.  I have read some of these already, but at one point he mentions the book Death by Todd May, and after having that on my reading list for some time I finally picked it up off my e-bookshelf last night and read through it.

I want to start by saying that the book, considered as a whole, is a highly readable reflection on the reality of human mortality, and manages to be at once both gentle and disarming.  This balance is hard to strike, and I’m genuinely impressed that the author was able to thread that needle so successfully.  I also applaud Todd May for expressing these concepts so clearly, and for translating difficult concepts into a form that’s highly accessible for non-philosophers.

The book consists of three parts: first, an investigation of the problems death presents for the human condition; second, a discussion of the problems that would be created by immortality; and third, an attempt to synthesise a point of view that accepts death as the central fact of human existence, without being overwhelmed by it.  The first part coalesces around the four central characteristics of death as outlined by Heidegger in Being and Time:

  1. Death is final — it marks the end of human existence and conscious experience.
  2. Death is not an accomplishment or a goal to reach, and dying is not a form of closure for our lives — it simply is an end.
  3. Death is both inevitable and uncertain, in that we cannot avoid it, and we can never know for sure when it may happen to us.
  4. These three facts about death lead us to search for meaning in life.

These four points provide a framework for Todd May to confront his readers with the grim reality of human mortality.  They underline his central thesis, which is that death is not merely an intruder that appears at the end of our lives, but in fact it is the most important defining element of human experience.  Everything that humans do — the relationships we form, the projects we undertake, the passions we indulge — are shaped by the fact that we are mortal, our time in this Universe is limited, and therefore we must try to make things happen before that time ends. 

May places this perspective, a frank assessment of the facts of human mortality, against the more typical response many of us have to thinking about death, which is to avoid it. He discusses Christian theology as an example, in which the terrifying reality of death is soothed in the minds of believers with the idea that death is not an end to their experience, but that the soul, the self, continues beyond death. He points out that this may be comforting even if one believes in Hell, because at least even in Hell there is no cessation of existence; Hell-bound souls continue to be, even if they do so in abject suffering.

From there he offers Buddhism as another example of the avoidance of the reality of death in religious thought, and here is where I must part ways with May’s take. He presents Buddhism as avoiding the final cessation of death via reincarnation:

When you’re reborn, it is into a different body.  It is your mind or your soul – again as in Christianity – that is. reborn. If your karma consists in what you have made of yourself in a particular life, your rebirth situates you in a particular karmic state in your next one.

In the past I have written extensively about Buddhist thought, and Buddhism has been an object of study for me since I was a teenager.  The characterisation of reincarnation May offers above is fundamentally at odds with the Buddhist concept of life, death and rebirth.  What he describes is reincarnation as in Hinduism, and indeed later in the book he explicitly conflates the two.  But in reality, Buddhist thought defines itself in opposition to Hinduism in this regard.

In Buddhism, the concept of anatta — non-self — is one of the three marks of existence, alongside anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (suffering).  The word anatta itself stands in opposition to the Hindu concept of atman, that within all of us lies an essence, a soul, which transfers from one life to the next.  In Buddhism, there is no eternal soul, and there is no essential self that transfers between existences.

May attempts to sidestep this a few pages later in the text:

There are those who study Buddhism who will want to take issue with the interpretation I have offered here. After all, they point out, for Buddhism the self is a myth. There is no self, only the ever-changing process of the cosmos. This is true. All Buddhist doctrine denies the idea of a distinct self. The significance of this denial, though, depends on one’s interpretation of Buddhism. For those who do not embrace the doctrine of reincarnation, it is easy to see how there is no self.

The central thrust of this paragraph is flawed, however; there are, by definition, no Buddhists who embrace the doctrine of reincarnation.  Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is not the same thing.  Reincarnation does rest on the concept that souls transfer between lives; one’s current life ends, and our essence moves on to another life, and there is a continuity of our essential self between those lives.  But that does not apply here, since Buddhism does not include reincarnation.

In Buddhism, the end of one’s current life is an actual end.  When I die, Eric Silverman will cease to exist; my consciousness and all my experiences will vanish along with my corporeal body.  My karmic actions, presuming I have not achieved enlightenment, will create the conditions for a rebirth, but that rebirth will be a different life.  Rebirths are linked by the causal processes of kamma (karma), not by a soul or identifiable, independently-existent self.

The central problem here is that May has dismissed anatta as if it were a quirk of interpretation, rather than the centrepiece of an extensive and coherent belief system.  Anatta is not a concept one can separate from the Buddhist view of the cosmos and our place in it; since the time of the Buddha this concept is central to Buddhism, and many of its practices rest on apprehending and experiencing the absence of self and the emptiness of existence.  Without anatta, we are no longer talking about Buddhism.

To further reinforce this point, I would stress that Buddhists of every stripe — Theravadins, Mahayanists, Tantric practitioners — all agree that anatta is a central component of Buddhist thought.  In 1967, a historic meeting of representatives from every major Buddhist sect agreed on a set of common beliefs: 

The Buddha is our only Master (teacher and guide)

  1. We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha (the Three Jewels).
  2. We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God.
  3. We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth
  4. We accept the Four Noble Truths, namely duḥkha, the arising of duḥkha, the cessation of duḥkha, and the path leading to the cessation of duḥkha; and the law of cause and effect.
  5. All conditioned things (saṃskāra) are impermanent (anitya) and duḥkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anātma).
  6. We accept the thirty-seven qualities conducive to enlightenment as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.
  7. There are three ways of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment: namely as a disciple (śrāvaka), as a pratyekabuddha and as a samyaksambuddha (perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a samyaksambuddha in order to save others.
  8. We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

Note point 5, which explicitly includes anatta (written here in the Sanskrit as anatma) as a core belief common to all Buddhists.  Point 8 is also important, as it acknowledges that other forms of Buddhism may exist, but these must not be confused with core Buddhist principles.

So, in other words, the moment May proposes an interpretation of Buddhism which includes a soul or self, he has ceased talking about actually-existent Buddhism and begun talking about something else.

Ultimately, if we introduce reincarnation to Buddhism instead of rebirth, the whole edifice no longer functions, and the core concepts of mind and existence that define it no longer make sense together.  Reincarnation requires a soul to be transferred from one life to another, and anatta makes this impossible, so these two elements are mutually exclusive.

May continues along this line of reasoning, further conflating reincarnation and rebirth:

Things are more complicated with the doctrine of reincarnation, however. If, in a way, the self is an illusion, in another way it is not. As with the Christian doctrine we discussed, there must be something that survives death in order to get reincarnated. And that something must be continuous with the previous life, or else the nature of one’s reincarnation would be entirely arbitrary. We might put the point this way: the self is an illusion that only dissipates when one achieves nirvana.

Again this logic does not hold, although there is some room for argument here.  As described briefly above, in Buddhist thought the thread that links different lives is not an independently-existent soul or essence, but instead the karmic actions of one life create the causes and conditions for the next.  To expand a bit on this I will quote myself from that post of a few years ago:

It is this kamma that continues beyond death.  The Buddhist belief, at its core, is that once we die, the consequence of our kamma is that another birth takes place, and our little bundle of karmic pluses and minuses determines what kind of birth that will be.  This cycle is inevitable, and eternal, unless we are able to break free of this cycle via liberating ourselves from clinging to this world and become enlightened.

This cycle can be hard to conceptualise, so it’s often described using an analogy.  Imagine my life as a burning candle, with the flame representing my consciousness.  Right as the candle is running out, I use that flame to light the next candle.  The next candle lights up right as the old one burns out.  So my consciousness directly causes another, subsequent consciousness to arise in the next life, but my original consciousness burns out — the new one is a different consciousness, existing in a different body (which may or may not be human).  Kamma is what lifts the old candle to the new and causes the new one to light up.

The philosophical difficulty for Buddhists in this context is that logically we might expect that some causal agent would need to exist that creates the causes and conditions for the reborn consciousness to arise, rather than a mind arising from nothing yet still somehow being linked to a previous mind.  Kamma is posited to be the agent in this case, but how does a formation of karmic aftereffects lead to the creation of new mental events, a new consciousness?

There are several approaches to this, but the most common one I’ve seen in the Buddhist community is the concept of one’s existence as being a mindstream, a continuous stream of moment-to-moment sense impressions and mental events which continue across lifetimes, but like anything else has no inherent independent existence.  This stream is affected by our positive and negative actions during our various lives and is the ‘stuff’ that transfers the karmic ‘seeds’ one has planted in previous lives into that next existence.  In that sense, there is a continuity of mind at a fundamental level, but again this is not a soul or essence, and while my mindstream may continue after this life, Eric Silverman will not.  My death will be an end to my life, and only my karma survives me. 

Part of the source of confusion here may be that, as with any other conditioned thing, consciousness in Buddhism is actually a confluence of numerous causes and conditions.  Consciousness exists in different forms, and at different levels of subtlety, and these interact in different ways with the physical aggregates that form our body.  In Western theology we think of the mind as a singular entity, whereas Buddhism does not; this can lead us to think that the mindstream indicates a continuity of consciousness from one rebirth to another, whereas in Buddhism the continuity occurs at the subtlest levels of mind.  Since my lived experience as a human is defined by the grosser forms of consciousness as well as the subtler one, and those grosser forms interact inextricably with my physical form, in a fundamental sense my different rebirths are different existences, despite sharing at a deeper level a subtle continuity of mind.  This means that even though there is a link between this life and the next, that next life will be different from this one, with a different mind and experience, linked by kamma and the subtlest levels of mind.*

On that basis I reject May’s contention that Buddhists avoid the finality of death.  While there is a continuity of existence between lives, at the core this is not reincarnation, and does not require a self or soul to be transferred. 

In practical terms, Buddhists do take death as an end to life, and there are numerous traditional practices that confront this directly: Thai forest monks meditate in dangerous and scary places to contemplate the impermanence and eventual dissolution of all things; and monks of various traditions sometimes meditate in graveyards or near decaying corpses to confront the reality of our eventual death.  This practice is as old as the Buddha himself, and can be seen depicted in Buddhist art:

Tibetan Buddhists in particular view meditation on death and dying as a supremely important aspect of their practice.  Beyond the meditating-in-charnel-grounds stuff, which was recommended from the earliest days by the Buddha himself, there are other common practices of death meditation practiced in Tibet:

Another powerful technique for developing awareness of death involves visualizing oneself lying on one’s deathbed, with life slowly ebbing away. All one’s friends and relatives are gathered around, weeping and lamenting, and one’s body progressively degenerates. The glow of life fades from the face, and the pallor of death replaces it. Breathing becomes shallow. The lips dry up, slime forms on the lips, and the body becomes like a lump of flesh, unable to move freely. Bodily temperature drops, eyesight, hearing, and other senses lose clarity, and one becomes aware of past negative deeds…. Through cultivating this meditation one should develop a sense of urgency regarding religious practice and a poignant awareness of death. (John Powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, p 331)

These practices are considered so important that in some cases Buddhist teachers recommend they be practiced daily:

Atisa is said to have told his students that for a person who is unaware of death, meditation has little power, but a person who is mindful of death and impermanence progresses steadily and makes the most of every precious moment. A famous saying of the school he founded, the Kadampa, holds that if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted; if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted; and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted. (Ibid., p 326)

The Tibetans also produced the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol, lit. ‘Liberation Through Hearing at the Intermediate State), a detailed description of the processes the mind undergoes at the moment of death and during the intermediate state between lives (the bardo).  Tantric practices in Tibet go into exhaustive detail into the process of death, and view it as a vital opportunity to momentarily touch the subtlest aspects of mind and the Buddha-nature that pervades all of us.  

The bardo concept is also applied to the moment-to-moment deaths we all experience, as our consciousness changes, adapts and reforms itself continually:

Each moment is said to give us a glimpse of the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth, since every moment of mind passes away and is replaced by a successive moment. Reflection on one’s own mental processes graphically indicates the fleeting nature of consciousness: thoughts flow along in unending succession, each one giving way to its successor. Cognitions and emotions change in response to our experiences and perceptions, and even our most cherished ideas and aspirations are subject to change. Thus, for a person who has awareness of death, every moment becomes a lesson in death and impermanence. (Ibid., p 328)

Buddhists as a whole, and Tibetan Buddhists in particular, encourage continual awareness of death and its finality, and have developed detailed practices aimed not at avoiding death, but using its power to progress further on the path to liberation.  These practices are not particularly obscure; the Tibetan Book of the Dead is widely known through The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, an international bestseller.  Death meditation in the traditional form outlined by the Buddha is still practiced in Thailand, and the original sutras on death and impermanence are freely available in English.  That being the case, I struggle to understand how Buddhism can be characterised as a religion that avoids death; even a brief look at Buddhist literature on the topic shows that Buddhists confront death and mortality very directly, and specifically encourage adherents to develop a continual awareness that death stalks us all.**  

Unfortunately, this erroneous presentation of Buddhism’s attitude toward death is a continuing thread in the book, and at times presents what seems to me a rather colonialist view on Buddhism.  A vibrant and complex system of thought is lumped in amongst ‘Eastern religions’ with no attempt made to distinguish it from other, equally nuanced approaches to these critical human questions: 

In Eastern religions , as with the monotheistic tradition, death is ultimately something that is avoided. It’s not just that it can be avoided. It is essentially avoided. If we can put it this way, it is unavoidably avoided. Whatever happens to your body (or your bodies), you continue to exist.

This passage positions Buddhism — and all ‘Eastern religions’ — as avoiding death, and not only that, but forcing one to exist continually.  The core concept of Buddhism centres on breaking out of that cycle, so death is not ‘unavoidably avoided’ — the whole point of Buddhist practice is to achieve enlightenment, and thereby break the cycle of death and rebirth.  While it is true that one may be stuck in samsara forever if no action is taken, the moment one becomes a Buddhist, one is attempting to avoid this endless loop.

May goes on to contrast Buddhism with Taoism, claiming that Taoism is more consistent in its beliefs than Buddhism:

Taoism, like Buddhism, takes the concept of the self to be illusory. There is simply the unfolding process of the cosmos, and what appears to be a self is nothing more than a moment in that cosmic unfolding. But, unlike those Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, Taoism is more consistent in this regard. Reincarnation has implicit in it the idea of a self. That self may disappear again when it reaches nirvana, but at least it remains throughout a series of lives.

Leaving aside this additional wholesale dismissal of centuries of Buddhist thought on these issues, again the description of Buddhist beliefs here is not accurate.  As we know by now, Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation, and there is no independently-existent self or soul that remains throughout our numerous lives.  The elements of mind that continue to the next life do not include the grosser consciousnesses and physical aggregates of our previous lives, and therefore do not represent a continuation of the same existence in the way that a transference of self or soul would imply.

Taken as a whole, the overriding impression is that May has taken a view of Buddhist thought that seems quite common among Western thinkers.  Buddhism is a highly developed and systematic philosophical system, encompassing enormous numbers of sutras, commentaries and analytical works investigating the nature of the mind, consciousness, the nature of reality and the Universe.  Perhaps due to the systematic approach Buddhism takes to these questions, we have a tendency to view Buddhism as more of a ‘scientific’ take on these topics than other religions, and that leads some to conclude that we can carve off and recombine bits of Buddhist thought in whatever way suits our argument.

This is true to an extent, in the sense that Buddhists do not believe in a God or gods, or a system of divine judgment that sorts us into Heaven or Hell.  We must reap the consequences of our actions due to kamma, but kamma is more of a law of nature rather than a divine system of accounting.  Therefore, one can do whatever one likes with Buddhist thought from that point of view, since no one is watching, so if you don’t care about suffering or the conditions of your next rebirth, then there is nothing stopping you.

But there are certain aspects of Buddhism that cannot be separated out without dismantling the whole belief system.  Kamma (karma), dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and rebirth are among these; without these concepts, little of Buddhism remains.  Without kamma there is no need to practice the Noble Truths, and no next life for which to plant the seeds of good actions; without dukkha there is no need to seek liberation; without anatta we lose the balance between concerns of this life and the next that define the approach of Buddhism to human existence; and without rebirth there is no samsara to escape or dukkha to eliminate.  So when May denies anatta, he denies Buddhism, and presents instead a caricature which suits his argument but does not reflect the reality of Buddhist thought and practice.

Speaking more broadly, I wish that Western thinkers in general would examine why they feel able to dismantle Buddhism in this way, in a way that we do not see as often in relation to Western monotheistic traditions.  Taking anatta out of Buddhism is like taking Jesus Christ out of Christianity — self-evidently ridiculous, and in doing so we would no longer be talking about the same system of thought.  Yet we often see Buddhism approached like a menu of disparate concepts to be recombined at will.  I suspect that Buddhism being more distant, more ‘alien’ to us allows us to pry it apart without feeling we must maintain the integrity of these concepts. 

However, Buddhism has been highly accessible in the West now for decades, and one can easily find native Westerners who are serious Buddhist practitioners and monks/nuns throughout our hemisphere.  So why do so many thinkers not even take the step of contacting these practitioners to check their understanding?  To me it feels disrespectful, and dismissive of a way of life that defines existence for many millions of people.  To say we can extract what we like from Buddhism and discard the rest unmakes the hard work of not just the Buddha himself, but untold thousands of scholars and monks who succeeded him.  When discussing Christianity, we consider it as a system of thought and respect its great scholars of theology like St Augustine, St Thomas Acquinas, and Martin Luther.  When discussing Buddhism, why do we instead break it apart, and ignore great minds like Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu and Buddhaghosa?   This disparity particularly stands out in this book, where ancient philosophers like Marcus Aurelius get their due, but Buddhist scholars of India existing at the same time bear no mention.  

What particularly disappoints me in this case is that May’s search for a synthesis, a viewpoint on death that accepts its finality while not being consumed by it, is what actually-existent Buddhism attempts to offer us.  The Buddha explicitly denies nihilism, which denies a purpose to existence and excuses numerous bad actions in one’s short life, and the existence of a soul/afterlife, which distracts one from the import of this life.  In Buddhism, when one dies, one’s existence in that form is over, so we must make the best use of our limited time; but that existence affects subsequent ones through kamma, so a single-minded focus on only our moment-to-moment struggles is not enough to achieve liberation.  Buddhism says that this life matters, death is an end, and yet we are not consumed by that thought; our karmic actions take root beyond this momentary existence, and though all things are impermanent and must end, we all have the ability to contribute to freedom from this suffering, not just for ourselves, but for all sentient beings.

Now I do not mean to suggest that May should take this view, or agree with this synthesis as the best one.  Nor does he have to present a detailed critique of Buddhism as a whole, particularly given just how dense Buddhist thought is on these questions.  But I would have liked to have read a version of this book that addresses the perspective of actually-existent Buddhism on a basic level, and apprehends it with the same sensitivity and care that he provides for other ways of thinking about death and mortality.  

At its core, May’s project is a worthy one.  I agree with him that avoiding the reality of death is problematic, and in doing so we deny the essence of what it means to be human.  I would even say that our experience of coronavirus this year has underlined the hazards of pushing death to one side; we have a well-developed ability to ignore death that does not actively affect us, and so we find ourselves shockingly adept at ignoring the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths we have caused due to the wilful incompetence of many of our governments.  If we sought not to ignore death, but to embrace it as a motivator for human existence, then perhaps we would have a wholly different reaction to the tragedies unfolding all around us.

My objection to May’s take is simply that, as a student of Buddhism, I would have liked to see its approach critiqued accurately in the context of this project.  Instead, we are given a version of Buddhism divested of its core concepts, and the incoherent result is dismissed as unhelpful and illogical.  For me, this seriously damages what is otherwise an accessible, empathetic and powerful take on the central importance of mortality in human existence.

——

*I should note here that I’m providing a very basic explanation, and one coloured by my study of Mahayana traditions like Soto Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; for a more complete picture that includes other strands of Buddhist thought, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a nice article summarising concepts of mind in Indian Buddhism/Theravada.  For Mahayana/Vajrayana concepts, accessible works by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Approaching the Buddhist Path), Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching) are good starting points; alternatively, the brave may wish to start with Nagarjuna and go from there!

**Just to reinforce the point, here is a sample death meditation from the Dzogchen preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism (translated from Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse, by Jigme Lingpa):

Second, meditate on the impermanence of the beings that inhabit the universe. Even the sages and gods, with their eon-long life spans and majestic brilliance, cannot escape their own mortality. What, then, of those of us on earth, born as we are at the end of an age in a place where the life span is indefinite? We too will soon be dead.

What were once thriving villages and monasteries are now empty and deserted. Once inhabited by great individuals, they are now home to nothing more than birds and mice. Just look at your own parents, friends and relatives, fellow villagers, neighbors, pets, and so on. Of those that you can recall, most of them are now gone. Some of them were alive just last year, but this year they are no more.

More specifically, in your present circumstances you feed your body good food, dress it in the finest clothes and jewelry, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Despite all this, your life is getting shorter with each passing day. Death will arrive before long, and when it does, your breathing will become labored and your face will grow pale. Your limbs will twitch and your mind will grow delusional. In the end, you will end up a corpse, your body tied and covered with cloth. Cast naked into a charnel ground, your limbs will be hacked apart and eaten by vultures and wild beasts, with even your hair and bones torn apart and scattered here and there. When all this happens, your loved ones and possessions will not go with you, yet leaving them behind will seem unbearable. Your karma alone will dictate what happens. Such a time could even arrive today or this evening. You can’t be sure!

With a sense of urgency, think about how unbearable this actually is. As you continually familiarize your mind with this idea, when you move, sit, or lie down, you can even say to yourself, “This is my very last act in this world!”

This is but one of many examples of such practices.  Having seen how disarmingly, brutally direct these meditations are, how can we say that Buddhists avoid the reality of death and mortality?

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