The Death Illusion
Humans tend to regard themselves as supreme by nature, in contrast to what is generally viewed as a primitive world. Our lives are virtually encased in a sense of divinity, assumed to distinguish us from everything else. This sense of division is also connected to the belief in an inherently separate self.
Humans commonly see themselves as at least subtly God-like, marked by what is called consciousness. A dividing wall is imagined to separate mind from matter, the animate from the inanimate. Consciousness is our divine self, and death, a fall into lowly materiality.
The inseparable interrelatedness of people to everything else generally goes unacknowledged. The world provides us with things, but we are not of it. This dualism requires that we either accept eternal selfhood or be doomed to oblivion, death, as a descent into an incoherent abyss.
While the notion of human privilege appears to be an advantage, it is our affliction, resulting in an outlook of separation, conflict and defensive fear. The idea of birth as an independent point of origin and death as a final endpoint, is a misconception. An altogether different understanding of life and death, and of the relationship of consciousness to the world is necessary.
Mind and Matter
The notion that consciousness marks humans as divinely distinct, can first be challenged by recognizing that consciousness does not independently exist, but is an interrelational function. What is considered to be conscious, is inseparable from what is not considered to be conscious.
Here is a brief outline of the relationship. Sensory perception must involve an image of the perception in order for the perception to be noted as having occurred. This image, such as that of a tree, is known as consciousness. Consciousness cannot be separated from sensory perception or from the tree. They are not distinct entities. Thinking, involves the interplay of these sensory-perceptual images. Thinking is not an independent affair either, but a dynamic, interrelated mind-body-world activity.
Conscious images are not objective impressions of a world out there. They are a function related to human survival (just as is the notion of subjectivity is such a function). For instance, there are no colors in the world. However, color is necessary to help mobile organisms make distinctions between objects. The perceptual image of color is activated when different wavelengths of light are converted into images of color within the neural-visual system. Objects are not the separate entities that they appear to be either. The impression that they are involve other interrelated processes that allow an immeasurable quantum-like world to be represented as object images.
A key point here, is that what is considered to be conscious, depends upon sensory organs such as the eyes, ears, touch, etc., that are not regarded as conscious, but as material body parts. Objects of sensory perception such as the tree, are also not considered consciousness, but matter. Furthermore, the neural brain that is integral to the formation and interaction of perceptual images, is also not conscious by definition, but regarded as brain matter. Therefore, no fundamental distinction can be drawn between mind and matter.
For if you look at all that consciousness depends upon and that is not considered conscious and cleared it away, there would be no consciousness essence or function left over. Since consciousness depends upon conditions that are not regarded as conscious, consciousness cannot be established as having its own independent nature, being or constitution.
The issue is not to regard consciousness (or any phenomenon) as non-existent, but to recognize that its freestanding appearance is deceptive. In the same way, a tree appears to be a separate entity and yet what we call a tree cannot be separated from the sun, clouds, rain, oxygen, minerals, and so forth. The appearance of its inherent separateness is like a mirage. And as with a tree, it is important to note that given all of the diverse conditions that conscious function depends upon such as the various sense organs, there cannot be one singular consciousness. Consciousness becomes reified into a unified essence under the lens of a mechanical reductionism.
Consciousness is an abstract name for what is not reducible to a separate entity that is conscious in and of itself. If consciousness was truly separate from objects, it would serve no purpose as it would be detached from everything to be conscious of. Nor can matter be reduced to an essence that is inherently material. One cannot say what mind or matter truly are because all form, in both their gross and subtle appearances, are relational and therefore cannot be singled out. Regarding consciousness, the straightforward recognition that it cannot manifest apart from a body makes the point that consciousness cannot have its own nature, as does the arising of conscious thought upon reading these printed words.
Now, previous thoughts conventionally appear as proximal conditions for subsequent thoughts to arise, but not as an individual continuum with an essence. Continuity is the appearance of the regularity of conditions. Thought is a dynamic interplay without establishing one iota of independence that endures as its own entity. Conscious thought is not an independent faculty that stands to the side making objective observations. Consciousness is a symbolic description given to an immeasurable complex of diverse activity that changes with every interaction. There is no substance to be found in its name.
“Consciouness is a name. The name too, has no own being.” Nagarjuna
This understanding advances the refutation of an inherently existent consciousness and correspondingly, the notion that it is privileged in comparison to what is regarded as matter. It discredits the idea that consciousness establishes a dividing wall between what is human and everything else. For as consciousness can be seen to lack a self-essence, it cannot be the identifier of a human self either.
There is another reason to question the standard view of conscious as a supreme identity. Consciousness function is limited. Most mobile organisms are required to anticipate an unpredictable environment. The formation and manipulation of abstract images allow for the possibility of successful navigation and planning. The imaginal sense of a distinct past, present and future is an example of this necessity. The images of consciousness are functional, limited and relative. They are not copies of a reality.
The vast majority of what goes on in the mind-body-world, including the formation of consciousness, is not by definition, consciously perceived or regulated. Additionally, the coherence of the universe, or the production of a flower for that matter, does not take place through the use of conscious images. With this understanding it is not consistent to grant conscious activity supreme status.
The role of consciousness makes human culture and society possible. However, on all counts, consciousness is like a cosmic network rather than the activity of an autonomous entity. These reasonings are not intended to deny or devalue the role of consciousness, but to appreciate its interdependent magnitude and to therefore recognize the “equality of all phenomena.” ¹
1. Nagarjuna, Arya, Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Tibetan Master Nagarjuna, (Dharma Publishing,1997), Exposition of Bodhicitta, sloka 29
All form, both gross as in a tree, and subtle as in thought, depend upon innumerable conditions and are not the fixed entities that they appear to be. Nothing actually remains the same for an instant. What is perceived to be an unchanging object is on the contrary, an instantaneous, indivisible movement of disintegration and formation, even though this transience is imperceptible. It is in this sense that what is called death is also life, as the ongoing transformation of all phenomena.
Everything arises dependently. The absence of inherent or independent existence is referred to in Buddhist philosophy as emptiness. In western philosophical traditions the absence of objects or concepts existing in and of themselves is often referred to as non-essentialism. It is because nothing exists independently, as its own substance, nature or process, that everything is impermanent.
For example, fire is believed to exist as a fundamental element. However, fire is dependent upon and inseparable from countless conditions such as fuel, oxygen, thermal friction and so forth. Every flame continuously changes because fire depends upon conditions with no existence of its own. Since fire is not self-maintained it is impermanent.
When conditions for fire are no longer present, we say the fire died. Yes, this is understandable, but it is important to see that each instant, the fire is a different fire, not the same fire. Furthermore, since an appearing fire depends upon conditions that are not considered to be fire, fire lacks its own self nature. After all, fire does not burn itself. So fire does not and cannot die as an entity that ever existed in and of itself.
Let’s try to find fire as an element existing in and of itself. Fuel is not considered fire. Oxygen is not fire. Heat is not fire. Friction is not fire. If these conditions are cleared away, or even one of them, such as oxygen, there will be no fire left over. Therefore, apart from the conditions of fire, there is no fire. Fire is not an independent element, but an interdependent phenomenon. It has no essence of its own. It is in this sense that fire is said to be empty. The same can be said for a self or subject, consciousness, death, and all phenomena.
Ultimately speaking, one cannot say what fire is or where is it begins and ends. Its conditions too, are empty. This is not to say that fire as it appears, does not arise, endure or cease, or that it does not burn, but that the appearance and function of fire is not the product of its own independent movement, nature or being. There are relative differences between phenomena and processes to recognize. These differences however, are of appearance, not essence. All form and all characteristics are dependent and relational in every regard.
Death is also falsely viewed as an independent process that results in the annihilation of life. However, if birth and death were independent processes, there would be no relationship between them. Birth would never stop being born and death would always be dying, which is nonsensical. Additionally, if birth had its own nature and process, it would have given birth to itself, which requires it to have already existed. And how can something that is dead produce death? Furthermore, it is contradictory to think of death or nonexistence as existing. Where could nonexistence reside if it did not exist?
These contradictions can be avoided by recognizing the interdependence of all things and consequently, to see that what arises dependently cannot be inherently created or destroyed. For no phenomenon is ever its own thing to begin with. Instead, each moment, is an unmarked birth and death in an interdependent and impermanent flow of continuation.
Therefore, there is not a separate self with its own cemented mind-body continuity that can be overtaken by a force called death. Thought, feeling, sensation, perception and a body are all vastly interrelational and impermanent, never remaining the same for an instant. The notion that there exists a separate, permanent self above and beyond a vast web of dependent conditions is a fiction. Death, which is merely impermanence, has been here all along. It is like the saying that you never step into the same river twice.
Humans are seen to possess a fundamentally different nature from the rest of the world, but are instead dependent upon it with no human essence left over. Without the conditions of air, water, earth, minerals, plants, the sun, a moon, ad infinitum, neither consciousness nor any human characteristic could appear, including culture, language, human society, and its interrelations. Everything is interdependent with no individual core or substance to be found, just as with fire. The belief in concrete thingness, mistakes the conceptual image of a thing for a real separate thing, mistakes the concept of death for death, the label of consciousness to be consciousness, the image of a me for a separate self.
Using the notion of impermanence, is not to assume it to be an inherently existent entity or process either. Impermanence is also empty of its own nature and does not involve an autonomous operation or autonomous entities that it moves or operates. It is the inability to posit independent phenomena and processes that is the meaning of impermanence.
An understanding of impermanence refutes the idea that separate entities just show up from out of nowhere concretely formed, and then disappear in a final act called death. Things appear to have a separate location and to independently come and go, as well as function. However, when these mechanistic impressions are carefully examined, such appearances, activities, and functions are recognized as relative, dependent relationships with no nature or being of their own. Everything is like a reflection in a mirror, like a movie that appears to contain substantive entities but do not.
The fixed belief in a division between life and death, is a great misunderstanding. There is no identifiable location from which things are born, or to which they return and so, there is no place to die. Nor is there a human species or self who from out of nowhere becomes conscious. We are of the world.
There are relative, conventional differences between life and death, loss and gain, mind and matter, the animate and inanimate, that are of consequence. The issue is to note that these contrasts are dependently arisen, dependently identified and therefore without their own nature. The understanding of interdependence avoids the extremes that phenomena must either independently exist or not exist at all.
The appreciation that everything reflects everything else, is the undoing of the belief in inherent separateness and along with it, conflict and fear. Under these conditions, the heart opens. There is the recognition that even the autumn leaf is not fundamentally different from the spring leaf. The autumn leaf is life, in a borderless, impermanent flux of causal continuance. It never was itself, and so the appearance of its ultimate death is an illusion.
Nagarjuna, Arya, Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna, Dharma Publishing, 1997
Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel – The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Nagarjuna, Arya. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.
Translation and Commentary By Garfield, Jay L.
Oxford University Press, 1995
originally posted on Susan’s blog.