No Death, No Fear

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No Death, No Fear, by Thich Nhat Hanh, sounded promising when I first heard about it. I am always interested in new views on life and death, and Hanh is supposed to be a good read, but by the end of this book I was rather disappointed, for reasons I will explain below.

Hanh is a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam (exiled for his peace work; he even got nominated by MLK Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize). The nice thing about Buddhism in general and his view in particular is that it is very open and accepting. It is not that there isn't dogma in the teachings, but Buddhist writings and ideas are seen as one path to enlightenment, not the only one. Buddhism teaches to question even Buddhism. So it is easy for me to open myself up to a spiritual book by a Buddhist like Hanh.

The general aim of the book is to help people deal with the inevitability of death. Hanh's central argument is that there is really no such thing as death (or birth), that things do not actually begin or end. He uses a few choice metaphors (somewhat repetitively) to illustrate where he is coming from. Matter cannot be destroyed, merely converted into energy; it is itself a form of energy. A cloud does not merely pop into existence or disappear from existence; rather it is transformed from a river or ocean into vapor and later back into rain or snow.

Analogously, he argues, we ourselves do not have a beginning or an ending. Instead, our particular form manifests when conditions are right. To get to a tree you have to have a seed and sunlight and nutrients and all of that. The tree manifests from the seed when conditions are right. It seems wrong, he argues, to say that the seed stopped existing and the tree started existing. The seed transformed into the tree; it manifested a new form. Likewise, when all the preconditions and complex causes come together properly, our body is manifested from the genetics of our parents and their lineage and all of the life before them, not to mention all of the sunshine and food and everything that has gone into that cause-effect chain up until then.

In other words, what he is saying is that the concept of you or I having a separate, concrete identity is actually mistaken. Our identity is fluid or continuous with the causes that led to this manifestation, but this manifestation is itself fluid and ever-changing (our cells die and new ones replace them; our body grows and adapts; our thoughts come and pass and change). There is no steady, unchanging "me" either in body or mind.

He uses a lot more metaphors to reinforce what he is trying to get at, but I think in the end he does not provide much in the way of strong argument one way or the other. It is something that either jives with how you see the world or does not. He thinks that if you understand what he is getting at, you will see that you and your loved ones don't actually stop existing even if there is no Heaven or Hell - rather, the preconditions for your current manifestation are no longer there and you transform into something else.

That is where he gets way too flowery for my tastes and starts talking about how your dead loved ones become the trees and flowers and grass and sunshine and everything around you. Maybe he is just being poetic and saying that their influence on you lives on in how you perceive the world; but that might be giving him too much credit, because he seems at times to be pushing this a little more literally, as if whatever human-body-manifestation it is that we loved is still around hidden inside flowers and trees talking to us.

But regardless of that, I still like the larger perspective he is getting at. He is acknowledging the fundamental lie we accept from our youngest days (that our brain is probably pre-programmed to believe, and might need to believe in order to function): the lie that objects are distinct and their identities persist through time. It is not that we can't usefully separate macro-scale phenomena into separate objects, but we have to remember that this is in some sense arbitrary. Take the old identity paradox of the boat:

A sailor loves his boat, but a couple boards have gotten old so one afternoon he replaces them with boards of the same wood, same size, same color. Surely it is still his boat, right? But then a week later two more boards need replacing, and the next month three others. This is a big boat and that is not many boards, but by the end of a few years more and more boards have needed replacing. It is not like replacing any one board suddenly means his boat stopped existing and a new boat came into existence; his boat is still there floating in the harbor as always. But eventually, every board on his boat, every last piece of it, has been replaced by a new part. Little by little the changes were made, and at each step it seems silly to say we were no longer dealing with the same boat we started with, just because some tiny change was made. But in the end, there sits a boat in the harbor sharing not a single molecule with the boat we started with, so is it still the same boat?

In real life, molecules fly off and reattach from a boat as it sails through the water. Its structure and form is ever-altered, ever-changing, tiny bits at a time. We tend to appreciate this only on an intellectual level though, but Hanh is trying to get us to appreciate this sort of thing in our everyday lives, to appreciate the fact that things are deeply interconnected and not entirely separate in the way we normally consider them. We automatically categorize things as separate, distinct entities that persist through time. John's boat (which is still his boat even when a board is replaced, or just a little handle, or just a molecule), or John's body (even if most cells in his body die and are replaced with new ones within a single decade). We see them as separate objects, but Hanh says there is no separate self.

He is on to something, but at the same time I think he is totally over-extending and blurring things when he argues that this means we ourselves are interconnected to everything such that we already existed and continue to exist. Yes, *something* already existed and continues to exist (much as the water molecules making up a cloud were there in the river or ocean before becoming the cloud before becoming the rain), but it is nothing like the conscious entity that ends up showing up in our bodies as the genetic material unfolds and grows.

We are connected deeply to the world through these infinitely complex cause-effect chains, but if we are going to say that makes us identical to everything, then identity is not a very useful concept. Whatever passes on at death and transforms is not us in the normal sense; rather we radiate out our own cause-effect chains.

In that way, we kind of live on, but surely that is not what people are worried about when they worry about death - it is that the particular human-body-manifestation which is here and now thinking and talking and interacting human-style will no longer be able to do that. The love a person exuded while alive might live on in a cause-effect chain, but the person is no longer there to love, to do the loving.

Hanh's solution does not really tackle that, and by the end of the book he just skirts around this issue and takes to repeating himself and repeating some Buddhist scripture, saying that taking it to heart will comfort you when loved ones die. It becomes rather touchy-feely and it almost seems to me like he is betraying his own premise by not following through on it, but only taking it half way and then using it as an emotional comfort tool.

I do think it is important to reexamine our automatic assumptions about persistent, distinct identity (in the philosophical sense), and that this helps us see the bigger picture of the world we are in and how we exist in it. However, I think Hanh takes the easy road and just twists this idea in order to support his preconceived religious views in an emotionally-supportive way. Sounds nice, but not necessarily true.

Originally Written: 07-16-06
Last Updated: 07-16-06