Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

Accustom thyself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sentience, and death is the privation of sentience,… Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
(Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)

Restating what I take to be Epicurus’ point, when we are alive, we are not dead and thus death is not an issue; when we are dead, we cannot know anything good or bad, since we no longer exist; thus, when dead, death is not an issue. The immediate objection, or the one that comes to my mind, is that I can now, while alive, justly fear death because what I am fearing is the cessation of all possible future “lived nows.” What life seeks and fears losing, we might say, is an endless succession of lived moments. So, sure, when I die and cease to be, I won’t be underground in a coffin hating every moment of it, just as before I was born, I did not lament not yet being born. But I sure as hell can not want THIS to stop.

There are, I’m sure, ways that Epicurus could respond to this objection. However, I want to use the Epicurus passage and my take on its argument, and my objection, to draw out affinities between it and Dōgen’s writing on death in the context of his Zen Buddhism. For I think Dōgen’s take on birth (life) and death are similar to Epicurus’ but with a couple of vital tweaks, ones that allow for a “straightforward” response to my objection to Epicurus. I’ll say them now and flesh them out below. The first tweak is to apply Epicurus’ point to each passing moment of birth (life). The second tweak is to deny what Epicurus surely assumes, namely, that it is the numerically same “I” at each moment of “my” life. This will lead to at least a number of issues concerning personal identity, but ones to which Dōgen has a response. More on that below (though we won’t look at all of them).

Let’s turn to a central fascicle, “Birth and Death,” from Dōgen in which he discusses these issues. I will comment on each paragraph before moving on to the next. He writes:

Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided; there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death.

Each moment of my/our existence is birth and death. What is one moment “dies” into the next as the next is “born.” And this is where nirvana “is.” It is not some future state or place. As Dōgen puts it in a different fascicle:

[A human body] is born and perishes moment by moment without ceasing. It is born and perishes at each of the sixty-five moments contained within one finger snap, but because of ignorance we do not notice it. There are six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred eighty moments in a day and a night, and the five skandhas [the constituents of a person] are born and perish at each moment, but we don’t notice it. What a pity that although we are born and perish at each moment, we don’t notice it! (“The Virtues of Home Leaving” Shobogenzo, Tanahashi edition)

This is, of course, central to the Buddhist claims concerning “no-self,” i.e., the denial that there is anything that exists on its own (non-interdependently) and which persists as straightforwardly the numerically same over time. But this does not mean that the seemingly persistent “I” that I identify as myself is nothing. Zen Buddhism takes very seriously what we all know, namely, that at any given moment I both am and am not the same person I was 20 years ago, last year, last week, yesterday. Hence, Dōgen’s saying that in regard to personal identity over time it is that I am neither the same nor different, not one, not two, in relation to each of these moments over time. We’ll come back to this point. Let us continue with “Birth and Death”:

It is a mistake to suppose that birth turns into death. Birth is a phase that is an entire period in itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, in buddha dharma birth is understood as beyond birth. Death is a phase that is an entire period in itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, death is understood as beyond death.

Part of the “trick” of enlightenment here is that when enlightened one is capable of being wholly present to the present moment. When alive, this moment is nothing but life, though it, too, contains death, since, as Dōgen says, each finger snap consists of 65 moments, each with their arising and perishing. Nevertheless, this is still life, and nothing but life. Commenting on this aspect, Hee-Jin Kim writes, “…when life is totally exerted and realized, there is nothing but life, excluding everything else, and ultimately life itself becomes “meaningless.” (Mystical Realist, 173). I take that what he means is that the meaning of “life,” what it comes to, is co-dependent on the contrast case of death. And when one is wholly in the moment, engaging just this, all is life, there is no death, and thus “life” loses the usual meaning that it has. Thus:

In birth there is nothing but birth, and in death there is nothing but death. Accordingly, when birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes, face and actualize death. Do not avoid them or desire them.
(Dōgen, “Birth and Death” Shobogenzo, Tanahashi edition)

This is a radicalization of Epicurus’ point that when we alive, death is nothing to us. In the context of Dōgen’s Zen, this is because when we are wholly present, completely engaging the present moment, there is nothing but life, and both life and death lose their “previous” meaning.

While this is all in the abstract, I came across an excellent description of it in practice by the monk Ajahn Amaro. Transcribing the podcast, “Letting Go of Time,” he says:

In developing concentration, samatha [calming of the mind], tranquility, it’s a lot to do with the nature of time and letting go of time. To train the mind to attend to the present it needs to not create the past or the future. This is an encouragement the Buddha gave over and over again. To let go of the past, to not create ideas about a future. Though to develop concentration, the steadiness of attention, there needs to be a conscious relinquishment of memory, where we’ve come from, the lingering effects of this morning’s conversations, activities, yesterday, last week, last years, our childhood. Consciously relinquish the past and not to create a future. To not be leaning into the feeling of the next moment, where I’m going, what I’ve got to do later, how I want to develop, where I want this to go, where I’m afraid of things heading up. The conditioning of the mind is all around, being a person, traveling through time, yesterday, tomorrow, today. Me remembering the past, me imagining the future. The mind creates feelings of self, feelings of time, feelings of place. But self and time and location are all conditions, fabricated, dependent. They don’t really have any substance in terms of dhamma [dharma]; in terms of the actuality of the way things are. But because of the conditioning of the senses we create yesterday, today, tomorrow, last year, next year; we create feelings of identity, location. Me who was there, who is here, who will go there. Though to establish concentration there needs to be a conscious letting go, particularly of time. Let go of the past, let go of the future. To commit the heart fully to this present reality. …The here and now reality.
(Ajahn Amaro, Amravati Buddhist Monastery Talks, “Letting Go of Time”)

I have written about this kind of radical presence before, both supportively and skeptically. A number of difficult issues arise regarding the actually experiential nature of such a developed sense of concentration on the present, one that implies a “darkening” of the non-present. However, let us take Ajahn Amaro, the Buddha, and Dōgen, at their word—Dōgen nicely expresses what’s at issue here as “…when one side is illumined, the other side is dark” (“Genjokoan”). If we do take it seriously, then we end up in a place we can describe using Wittgenstein, where he writes:

Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.
If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.
Our world is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.
(Wittgenstein Tractatus 6.4311)

Wholly in this moment of life, there is no person outside this moment who will either live or die outside this moment. There is nothing but the life of this moment; and thus, to paraphrase Dōgen, this moment is “beyond life.” Death comes in only when I project a self forward or backward, situating “my Self” in a narrative that begins with birth and ends in death. If such a phenomenological experience of complete presence is possible, then it would be, at least one way to respond to my initial criticism of Epicurus’ argument, namely, that what I seek as a living being, and what I fear to lose, is an endless succession of lived moments. Such a problem only arises when I flatfootedly assume a numerically identical self that persists from birth until death; a persisting self that could accumulate or lose moments.

For Dōgen, there is no such entity. But, gain, this does not mean that who I take myself to be is simply non-existent. It is not that this moment is completely disconnected from all the others. As Dōgen writes elsewhere:

Firewood becomes ash and does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. Understand the firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after, while it is independent of before and after. Ash abides in its condition of ash, which fully includes before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.

What I want to focus on here are the lines, “Understand the firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after, while it is independent of before and after. Ash abides in its condition of ash, which fully includes before and after.” This is an example of Dōgen’s, “not one; not two.” Each moment is wholly itself and independent of all other moments; yet, each moment is what it is only in relation to the universe of causes and conditions that bring it about. In this latter sense, each moment contains all other moments, though they are “darkened.” So this moment of life, contains nothing but the life of this moment, which is simultaneously co-extensive with before and after. As Dōgen continues the above firewood passage, echoing what we’ve already seen:

This being so, it is an established way in buddha dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as beyond birth. It is an unshakable teaching in the Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as beyond death.

Birth is a condition complete in this moment. Death is a condition complete in this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring. (“Genjokoan” Shobogenzo, Tanahashi edition)

The happenings of spring are contained within spring; they do not exist elsewhere. When summer comes, there are the happenings of summer. But it is not that there is this thing, the spring, that exists at one moment and then ceases to exist as this other thing, the summer, takes over. Rather, when it is spring, there is nothing but spring, nothing outside of, before or after, spring. The time of spring is the time of spring; time is not a third thing underlying spring and summer; it is not a container in which things separate from it occur. So, when summer comes, it does not replace what “was,” for it is all that is and ever was at the time of summer. In this way, each moment, wholly engaged, wholly present to, is eternal in the sense Wittgenstein says, namely, timeless. In this way, each moment of life is completely life, nothing outside it. Death becomes a problem when we mistakenly, ignorantly, project a self across all of these moments; and Epicurus’ argument fails to move us when we reify the self of this moment into a persisting owner of possible future moments.

One thought on “Epicurus, Dōgen, and Not Fearing Death

  1. Regardless of spiritual beliefs and views on afterlife/rebirth, the fear of death seems unnecessary but understandable. For some, the fear isn’t fear at all, but regret for experiences not lived and experiences still to come.
    Anxiety about death arises more from unknowing the future surrounding unforeseeable events and death itself while depression anchors in the past and the longing for the events already past tied with the want to relive in a pristine memory. In a Buddhist stance, living in the now and concerning oneself with achieving peace is the way to relaxation and happiness, or Nirvana, but death is still an overarching and unavoidable thing.
    To take a more Latin American view, death can be viewed as a law. Of course, Latin America is influenced by Catholic spirituality, but the view on death can still be used to alleviate fear of death. Death is a law of God, a motion set forth for all humans and thus, all are subject to death. On Earth, it’s one of the few laws people cannot break. Accepting death can be seen as the first step, but fully grasping it is the final.
    To take a more Mexican view, death can be celebrated. Death is the summation of out entire lives. The happy, sad, proud, angry, crushing, and victorious moments lead to death. From one perspective, it is remorseful. A life ended, it’s moments gone. From another, it’s a life realized. They lived. They left an impact. Family, friends, and all loved ones cherish a person’s life even more when faced with their death.
    This does not take from the perspective of the deceased but to some degree, it can cause some relief. On their death bed, many look back on the things they wish they should’ve done rather than the things they could still do: a regret for past actions and want for a more fuller life.
    But from the side of anxiety, maybe the fear of death is more a fear of infinity.
    No one can experience everything, but humans have infinite want, rather they be simple or complex. In regards to your post, your fear comes from death hindering more exploration into life and the chasm of death. Both deal with the same infinity. Life offers everything while death offers nothing. In contrast a blur fo white light, a stream of infinite objects and experiences mixed into one giant entity that’s ever growing while Death offers nothing, a deep black abyss filled with the end of infinity and starts its own potential infinity of nothing.
    An anxiety and fear of life seems more manageable compared to death. Both have infinity attached to them, but life gives an ever changing infinity whereas death offers the same infinite infinity, so to pick between the two, life is more enticing and comforting while death is daunting for its one and never ending choice, but that is to assume that death contains a terrible infinity.
    I realize this idea is suicidal in nature, but its an observation of mine combined with life (and death) views, so I thought it would be interesting to add on to the post.

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