Tuesday, March 24, 2009


What happens after we die?

I asked my Zen teacher that question once, early in my practice, prepared to hear about reincarnation or karma. Instead, she said Zen doesn’t say much about an afterlife. After all, we just don’t know.

And indeed, in all my subsequent years of attending the Zendo, I’ve never heard anyone address any kind of life-after-death. Zen is focused on the living, the now.

I was primed to hear about reincarnation because Buddhists in general are often said to believe in it. The common perception is that it means coming back in a new body as a snail or a dog, or maybe even another human. Some believers do, in fact, think of it that literally.

I have a much more general sense of what reincarnation might mean. I think we come back as a part of everything. Whatever energies we possess, whatever matter is contained in our bones and tissues, goes back into the earth and nourishes the next round of beings. We are not reincarnated in an intact spiritual sense, but a more general biological one -- and hence spiritually too. We are literally part of it all. (Not that we aren’t already!)

I’m not concerned about “making my mark” or “leaving something behind.” I will almost certainly have no children -- nor do I want any -- and my work is mostly focused on the day-to-day minutiae of society, so it will be quickly swallowed up by the abyss of information that surrounds us. I’m fine with that.

In fact, I’d rather not leave something behind. You know that saying you see on signs in national parks, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints”? That’s kind of how I feel about life.

When I die, I just want to vanish. I don’t want a rock with my name carved on it -- why waste a perfectly good rock? I don’t want a grave. Millions of people before me, going all the way back to our lives in caves alongside mastodons, have been born and died and left no trace. I want to join them.

Edward Hoagland has an essay in the March issue of Harper’s magazine where, being elderly, he reflects on life and the prospect of dying. Like me, he seems to believe we merely return to the earth when we die -- no spiritual dramatics -- and he’s fine with that. He writes:

“If heaven is on Earth, it’s hardly contradictory to love sunshine chevroned with tree shadows in the woods, plus the low-slung moss, a tiger-colored butterfly, the Tiffany glitter of a spider’s web after a gust of rain, and the yellow-spotted salamander emerging from under the nearest log -- yet feel content to die.”

(Photo: Driveways in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, December 2008)


  1. MY sense is that we just return to the soup of the universe. I am also fine with that. :)

  2. wonderful, thought provoking post. I like your understanding (take) on reincarnation....

    doesn't joni have some line in a song about how we are all just stardust - or is it someone else? but whatever, we are all part of the giant cosmic energy mass.

    despite not being concerned about making a mark, knowing you, I can say for a fact that you will leave behind many marks - for those of us that know you have had our lives enriched by knowing you....and I'd say that's a pretty wonderful 'legacy' - but you are young (well a lot younger than me or mr. hoagland) so no need to spend too much of your cosmic energy thinking about the afterlife.... or not.

    will have to hunt up hoagland's article, he has such an engaging style to his writing....

  3. A very evocative and thoughtful post, sir.

  4. Merle: Kind of comforting, isn't it?

    Mouse: Joni does indeed sing "we are stardust" in "Woodstock." I'm cool with remaining in the memories of those who knew me -- but after a few generations I'll be happy to be anonymous!

    Kishenehn: Prompted partly by a recent post of yours, in addition to Hoagland's essay and some other stuff...thanks for the inspiration! :)

  5. I did a post a while back and wanted to look at the lyrics to the old Joni mitchell song "Woodstock"....you know, with the chorus that goes
    "We are Stardust
    We are Golden
    And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden"

    I was surprised to find that the last Chorus of Mitchell famous lyrics had an added line (or two, if i were to continue) I'd never taken note of...

    "We are stardust
    Billion year old carbon
    We are golden"

  6. What a beautiful, clear post full of light. It makes perfect sense that you would prefer to slip away without leaving anything behind.

    Literally our bodies do become mulch sooner or later. Speaking for myself, I'd love it if someone could just wrap me in a blanket and toss me under a big oak tree (in the ground) to become fertilizer asap. Coffins and tombs really creep me out because they slow down the process.

    Unlike you, though, I think about legacy a lot, what I'd like to leave behind. It's interesting to contemplate. I've come to no cecisions just yet.

  7. This is all very consistent with the Jewish attitude toward life after death. It's what happens in the here and now that's important, not what's to come. I think it says a lot about a person's character when s/he is content to just let life go. It will of course be interesting to see if your attitude changes in any way as death approaches (if you have forewarning). Personally I like to dream that life on earth is just a warm-up act for some great show to follow, but who really knows for sure? You're definitely safe concentrating on the present moment.

  8. Good morning Steve,
    My dog is lying outside my window under the frangipani tree, under the stones, under the soil, but she is not there...

    she was not there when we slipped her into the freshly dug hole last week.

    In fact she was not there when we picked her up off the road one minute after the garbage truck had passed.

    In the ground there will be a bag of bones eventually, but around my verandah and in all her special resting places I feel her still.

    I hear the tinkle of her collar and the patter of her toenails...

    If I am remembered for the love I shared in the little kindnesses I gave I will be happy.

    My legacy will be in the hearts of my family and friends.

  9. I'm so gald you are in the world, and that we got to share greasy Chinese. :) Again, soon!

  10. I just happend on your blog and find that you have very interesting views on the afterlife.
    For me, after here, I plan on being in heaven with all the others that have gone before me. I have two boys there already and I look forward to seeing them and getting to know them. (They both died as infants.) I've never felt like I belong to this world, but am here for a very short time and then I go home to the place of eternity after my body dies. I like knowing there is a place free of hatred, sorrow, condemnation and despair, a place of unconditonal love with no ending. I admit I have no proof of such a place, but I still believe.