On Death

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 6)


Alan Watts explores Buddhist ideas of the value of death as the great renovator, including the Wheel of Life, and the idea of reincarnation as it is understood by philosophical Buddhists.


I have often puzzled and puzzled about what it must be like to go to sleep and never wake up, to be simply not there forever and ever. After all, one has some intimation of this by the interval that separates going to sleep from waking, when we don’t have any dreams but go to sleep, and then suddenly we’re there again. And in the interim there was nothing. And if there was never any end to that interval, if the waking up didn’t happen, that’s such a curious thought. And yet, you know, I believe that although that’s a rather gloomy kind of consideration, I’ve found that’s one of the most creative thoughts I ever thought in my life, and I keep going back to it.


You know, it’s in line with a lot of the very fundamental questions that children ask. When they say, “Mommy, who would I have been if you had married someone else?” These are the kind of questions that make us puzzle profoundly about our existence. And one of the reasons why I think thinking about not being—about total non-existence—is so creative, is that (in comparison with that thought) the fact that we are seems kind of queer; incredibly odd.


But, you know, in the Western world I suppose we have two dominant ideas about what happens to us when we die. There’s the old-fashioned idea that after we die we go to another world. I say old-fashioned not to say it’s out of date. We don’t know what the answer to this is. But that’s the traditional answer of the Western world: when you die, you go to another life—maybe heaven, maybe purgatory, maybe hell. Who knows. I think nowadays, though, the more general idea, the more plausible idea, to many people is that when we die we just cease to be. That’s all there is to it. But we’re inclined, I think, to have in our minds a picture of this—which indeed is depressing—of being shut up in the dark for always and always and always; to be kind of buried alive in a blackness where we are blind, deaf, and dumb, but somehow still conscious.


But in the Eastern world there are different ideas of this. The major Eastern idea is what is generally known as reincarnation, of going through life after life after life in an endless series—a process that is represented in this Japanese print of the wheel of life. The Buddhist wheel of life. This painting was lent to my by Mr. and Mrs. Imamura of Berkeley in California—he used to be the priest of the Berkeley Buddhist Church—and it shows the wheel of stages of existence through which beings pass, clutched by the great demon of impermanence. This is rather an unusual representation of the wheel of life. Perhaps some of you have seen these before. They usually have six divisions in the central part of the wheel here, and this one happens to have five, and it’s the Chinese-Japanese version of the Buddhist wheel of life. Whereas I think prints in books—I know there was one some years ago in Life magazine—usually show the Tibetan version.


But what we have here—and I think what I’ll do is I’ll explain, to begin with, the popular interpretation of it, and then go on to see what more philosophical Buddhists think of it in a deeper way. These, then are the five (or sometimes six) realms of existence through which, as I said, beings pass through their various lives. We could start here, for example. This is the human world. And then, next to this, is the world of the devas, which we would translate into English as “angel.” Then this is the world of the animals. This is the world that is sometimes called the hells, only that’s not quite a correct term for it. It should be called the world of the purgatories. Because in this scheme of the universe there is no everlasting state. There is no everlasting heaven and there is no everlasting hell. The demon of impermanence clutches the whole thing, and they all terminate. Next to the hells there is the realm of what are called pretas. They are frustrated spirits, sometimes shown with very large stomachs and very tiny mouths; enormous appetite but very small means of satisfying it.


And the idea is, you see, that in the course of his development, the individual goes through life after life. If he does well, he ascends towards the heavens. If he does ill, he descends to the hells. Or he may fall from the human state to the animal state, or fall from the human state to the state of the ghosts. But the point that has to be remembered in the Buddhist idea of transmigration or reincarnation is that you can never stop anywhere. You may ascend to heaven, but what goes up must eventually come down. You may descend to hell, but what goes down must eventually come up. And so one goes on and on, moving through these various worlds until, in Buddhist ideas, you become sufficiently awakened to become a Buddha—one who is released from the wheel and who does not fall anymore into the sequence of rebirths, but enters the eternal state of nirvāṇa.


Now, if you will look closer again, you will see that there are a number of figures ’round the outside of the wheel. And these represent what is called the twelvefold chain of dependent origination. That is to say, they are a series of links which form what might be called the sequence of life. They are, as it were, a schematic diagram of the force or the process that keeps this wheel rotating. And the chain starts with a demon down at the bottom here who represents ignorance; or perhaps unconsciousness, the state of not knowing. Then, next in order, you’ll see a potter’s wheel. And this represents potentialities of life. Next comes a monkey, who represents consciousness.


A man in a boat. For some reason, this represents the combination of name and form: words bringing out shapes, words identifying shapes and things in the world. Here comes sense consciousness—the five senses, a man’s body with the senses exposed. And here comes contact: a pair of lovers. After this, there comes perception. I am not quite sure what the symbol in this wheel is. It seems to show a man with a sword behind a screen and two women playing in front of the screen. The usual symbol you find here for perception is a man with an arrow in his eye, showing the pain involved in the perception of the world.


The next in the link is desire. It shows a woman with twins. The next one here is called grasping, and that shows a man with a basket into which he is trying to get the fruits of life. And then, as we come over ’round the wheel, we get a figure which means growth. I think this is one of the gods of prosperity. But it means growth, the fullness of life. Here is birth, the woman in parturition. Here is old age. And then, although the final stage of the links of dependent origination as they are usually drawn shows this one as the last, and calls it old age and death, in this particular wheel they’ve been spread out so that you get old age, grief—no, excuse me. This is sickness. Old age, sickness, death, grief, compassion, suffering, and again back into ignorance. Here’s another figure of ignorance: a camel being led by a blind man.


Now, what I want you to notice particularly about this is that the chain represents what is called in Sanskrit the process of karma. I’m going to write that word, because it’s very fundamental to an understanding of this whole problem. Karma is sometimes understood—and maybe your ordinary dictionaries give it to you—as the law of cause and effect. But actually it comes from the root kri, which in Sanskrit means “to act” or “to do.” And the basic idea of karma is that it is action which always involves the necessity for other action. As the Buddha once expressed it: this arises, that becomes.


Now, this isn’t quite the same thing as cause and effect. It is rather the idea of linkage. For example, when I pick up this brush, I lift it by one end and the other end comes up. Now, we could say this is cause and effect, although this would be a rather cumbersome way of thinking about it. I could say, for example, that the coming up of the brush at this end is the effect of the cause my lifting it at this end. But we don’t ordinarily think so complicatedly about it. We think in a simpler fashion, namely: that to pick up this end is also to lift up that end, because it’s all one. So, in the same way, Buddhists and Hindus who follow the idea of karma believe that life and death involve each other in the same way that the two ends of the brush—lifting up one involves lifting up the other. So, in this way, living involves dying. We wouldn’t say that that the cause of death is birth, but birth and death go together, and they are inseparable.


And so if we will look again for a moment at the wheel, we can see that there are these important phases of it altogether. Here it ends with the sequence of pictures representing death and suffering and its attendant grief, ending in the blind man leading the camel, and the demon—which together represent ignorance or unconsciousness. But once again, here, we have the potentiality of life, and then the monkey representing consciousness. All these things are looked upon as linked and therefore inseparable. And thus, you see, we don’t look upon ignorance as the first step or the first link in the chain from a chronological point of view. We only start numbering the steps of the chain here, because one has to begin somewhere when one’s talking.


And so the basic idea of this link is interrelatedness, interlockedness, so that death and life, as I said, imply each other. So that you might—speaking from the standpoint of Indian philosophy, of Hinduism, of Buddhism—you might pick an argument with Hamlet and say: to be or not to be is not the question. These are not alternatives, they are things that go together just like up and down, back and front, solid and space.


Now, there’s another aspect to karma which needs to be considered here, and that is that karma also involves the idea of the continuity of pattern. You know, strictly speaking, Buddhists don’t believe that there is any soul entity which passes from one life to another. There is no, sort of, fixed “I” or fixed ego which once was an animal, and then became a man, and then became an angel, and then eventually became a Buddha, or something like that. The idea of karma as the linking factor between the various lives is what we might call continuity of pattern.


For example, consider an army regiment. A certain regiment goes on year after year after year—old European regiments, for example, have existed for hundreds of years—and yet, the personnel of those regiments, and even the barracks in which they are stationed, are entirely changed. In the same way, a university: Harvard University has existed for a long time, Oxford for a lot longer, and yet there is not a single member of the faculty, not a single student, who was there when it first began. And yet, you see, the university goes on. Because what goes on is a pattern, a form of life. In the same way, the individual body of man: every seven years, I think, all the molecules composing our physical structure are entirely changed, and yet, something identifiable as the pattern which we associate with Mr. or Mrs. So-And-So is still there.


Another fascinating illustration of continuity of pattern in this sense is wave motion. It’s perhaps easiest to illustrate with something like a barber’s pole. When you twirl it, as you twirl it, there is an illusion of something moving upwards from the bottom to the top of the pole. It seems that the strips go along. Now, actually, they don’t go along. They just go ’round. And in the same way, also, when waves move across water, there’s no water moving across, there’s the wave pattern moving across. The water is just going up and down, as you can tell when you see, say, a dead leaf floating on the water’s surface, and it isn’t moved along by the waves.


So this idea of continuity of pattern is the solution which Indian philosophy offers on the matter of the problem of death. The individual, as it were, entity is constantly changing. He does not go on, but the pattern (or the karma, the pattern of action) goes on. And it’s all embraced by that figure you saw of the great demon of impermanence.


Could we look at that demon once again? I want to say something more about him. From our Western ideas this fellow looks pretty evil, and we might associate him with the devil in the Hebrew of Christian sense; of a principle of evil. In Buddhism, demons are not evil. They are really beneficent. They have a frightening aspect, but underneath this there is a deeper meaning. This demon represents change or impermanence. But the deep insight underlying this is that change is a liberating factor, death is a liberating factor. Did it not exist, life would not exist either. And therefore the wise man is not afraid of the demon. He goes, as it were, straight forward to him to embrace him. And at that moment the demon is transformed.


And so, in the same way in a deeper sense, Buddhists do not think of these various realms of the wheel as literal worlds where there are angels and demons and starved ghosts, but they represent the various phases of consciousness. Equanimity, a general kind of medium consciousness, quiet consciousness of the human state. The angel state is supreme happiness. The animal state is animality. Here is misery in its extreme. And here is frustration in its extreme. But the fundamental idea of the whole wheel that we have to remember—the idea of karma—is the interlocking, the interdependence, of being and not being, of death and life, and the fact that the demon of change is really a disguise of the very source of life: the death without which life is impossible, the change without which life is totally boring.


Now, of course, when any idea like that is explained, the first thing that we ask is: is it true? Is there a process of rebirth? Do our patterns go on and on and have influence to an illimitable future? But, you know, as this idea is held by deeply thoughtful Hindus and Buddhists, it isn’t a belief in something which we can’t prove. It’s really quite a self-evident notion. Think of it in this way: supposing I make two statements. Statement one: after I die I shall be reborn again as a baby, but I shall forget my former life. Statement two: after I die, a baby will be born. Now, I believe that those two statements are saying exactly the same thing. And we know that the second one is true; babies are always being born. Conscious beings of all kinds are constantly coming into existence after others die. But why would I think that the two statements are really the same statement?


Because, after all, if you die and your memory comes to an end and you forget who you were, being reborn again is exactly the equivalent of somebody else being born. Because we have no consciousness of our continuity unless we have memory. If the memory goes, then we might just as well be somebody else. But it seems to me that the fascinating thing about this is that, although a particular set of memories vanishes, death is not the end of consciousness. In other words, we are deluded by a kind of fantasy if we think of death as endless darkness. Endless nothingness is not only inconceivable, but it’s logically absolutely meaningless. Because we aren’t able to have any idea, much less sensation, of nothing unless it can be compared with a sensation of something. These two things go together.


And therefore I think what is meant is that the vacuum created by the disappearance of a being, by the disappearance of his memory system, is simply filled by another being who is “I” just as you feel you’re “I.” The funny thing, though, about being “I,” about feeling that one is sort of a center of the universe, is that you can only experience this “I” sensation in the singular. You can’t experience being two or three “I”s all at the same time.


Now then, it seems to me that this idea has three very important consequences. One is that the disappearance of our memory in death is not really something to be regretted. Of course, everybody wishes to hold forever to the memories and to the people and the situations that he particularly loves. But surely, if we think this through, is that what we actually want? Do we really want to have those we love—however greatly we love them—for always and always and always and always? Isn’t it inconceivable that even in a very distant future we wouldn’t get tired of it? And this, indeed, is the secret of the thing. This is why the demon of impermanence is beneficent. Because it is forgetting about things that renews their wonder.


Just think: when you opened your eyes on the world for the first time as a child, how brilliant colors were! What a jewel the sun was! What marvel the stars! How incredibly alive the trees were! That’s all because they were new to your eyes. Or, in the same way, you know how it is: you’ve been reading a mystery story, and you’re looking around the house, you want something to read, and you pick up an old mystery story. If you read it years and years ago and you’ve forgotten all about the plot, it still excites you. But if you remember the plot, it doesn’t excite you. And so, by the dispensation of forgetting the world is constantly renewed. And we are able to see it again and again, and to love again and again, to have people to whom we are deeply attached and deeply fond, always with renewed intensity, and without the contrast of having seen them before, before, before, before, for always and always and always.


Another consequence of this is a very curious realization for me. Remember that question: who would I be if my mother had married someone else? Who—if I were you, we often say, one might so easily have been you. I might so easily have been born in China and India. Why do I feel that the world is centered in this place as distinct from some other place? You jolly well know the world is centered where you are! And this gives one a very strange feeling of the idea that other people jolly well exist in the same sense you do. Everybody’s name is “I.” That’s what you call yourself.


So there will always be “I”s in the world. Every “I” is, in a way, the same “I.” We all might be anyone else. And there is no escape. It goes on and on and on and on. So long as there is consciousness anywhere, there is “I.” You, then, in a way, look out through all “I”s. And that, perhaps, is the secret of the great virtue of compassion.

On Death

Alan Watts


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