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One of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential People in America writes about taking responsibility for our own happiness and our actions
Robert Thurman is America's most popular and charismatic Buddhist. His first book, Inner Revolution, is an international bestseller and his lectures sell out to thousands.
Infinite Life demonstrates that our every action has infinite consequences for ourselves and others, here and now and after we are gone. He ...
One of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential People in America writes about taking responsibility for our own happiness and our actions
Robert Thurman is America's most popular and charismatic Buddhist. His first book, Inner Revolution, is an international bestseller and his lectures sell out to thousands.
Infinite Life demonstrates that our every action has infinite consequences for ourselves and others, here and now and after we are gone. He introduces the Seven Paths to reconstructing body and mind carefully in order to reduce the negative consequences and cultivate the positive. In his powerful, pragmatic style, Thurman delivers life-changing lessons on virtues and emotions through the lens of Buddhist practices and ways of thinking. He invites us to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences while we revel in the knowledge that our lives are truly infinite. Infinite Life is the ultimate guidebook to understanding our place in the universe and realizing how we can personally succeed while helping others.
Praise for Infinite Life
“Among the riches offered here is the insight that we do not become faceless blobs as we realize our selflessness and the infinite nature of our lives but true individualists. Liberated from a fear of death and isolation, confident that we are in a long-term relationship with life that can never be severed, we can begin to help ourselves and others to happiness.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Thurman delivers life-changing lessons.”
Praise for Inner Revolution
“An inspiring guide to incorporating Buddhist wisdom into daily life. Thurman shows how self-examination, far from miring the seeker in navel-gazing, can lead to an expanded sense of connection with others.”
“This book, both testimonial and invitational, addresses in a compelling . . . argument the palpable desires of an exhausted culture eager to go on pilgrimage from ‘me’ to meaning.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Part spiritual memoir, part philosophical treatise and part religious history, Thurman’s book is a passionate declaration of the possibilities of renewing the world.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Thurman’s lucid teachings infuse the concepts of liberty and happiness with cosmic significance and do much to illuminate the reasons for Buddhism’s blooming in the West.”
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ALSO BY ROBERT THURMAN
Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness
The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti
The Central Philosophy of Tibet
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Essential Tibetan Buddhism
Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet
(with Marylin Rhie)
Worlds of Transformation: Tibetan Art of Wisdom and Compassion
(with Marylin Rhie)
Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment
(with Denise Leidy)
Circling the Sacred Mountain
(with Tad Wise)
I deeply bow and sincerely thank all the many wonderful people who have inspired and helped me with this book. My ancestors, foremost my mother, Betsy, and father, Beverly, who gave me my body and cared for it with much love and generosity and intelligence. My spiritual ancestors in the Dharma, foremost the Buddha Shakyamuni and the great archangelic bodhisattvas, Manjushri, Tara, and company, the great sages and siddhas such as Nāgārajuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, and Dharmakirti, and the immortal lamas, such as Jey Tsong Khapa, who shaped my mind in ways I don’t remember in previous lives and ways I somewhat remember in this life, though there seems to be no limit to the growth of my appreciation. My root teachers, formal and informal, foremost His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Venerable Geshe Wangyal, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Serkhong Tsenshap Rinpoche, Tara Tulku, Locho Rinpoche, and good friend Gelek Rinpoche, who continue to instruct me, even when it is only when I remember and belatedly understand some long-past teaching, the depth of which I had not fathomed—probably still don’t completely. My kind friends and capable students, such as Joel and Joe, Sarah, Bobo, Lava, and Louise, who always stir my brain and tongue to produce something more meaningful. My beloved close family, Nena, Ganden, Uma, Taya, Dechen, Mipam, Dash, Caroline, Max, Maya, and Levon, who don’t even imagine how much they help me just by being there. And all my Mother Sensitive Beings, who have cared for me in countless lives and continue to help me to someday come to share with them the nexus of infinite bliss I have sensed at the core of all, in timeless moments.
On the practical level, my helpful friend Diana, my agent, Lynn Nesbit, my editors, Amy Hertz and Marc Haeringer, my editorial assistant, MeiMei Fox, and all the kind professionals at Riverhead Books.
To all of you, my main thank-you is my effort to reflect your kindness to our Mother Beings by channeling these teachings that come from higher beings while trying to minimize the channel’s many imperfections. On top of that, I will not forget your kindness, and I say thank you, thank you, thank you!
THE DALAI LAMA
I am very happy to introduce my old friend Bob Thurman’s new book, the title of which he derives from the name of one of the buddhas, known in Tibetan as Tsepamey, meaning Infinite Life, which denotes the qualities that buddha principally embodies. He represents the Mahayana view that perfect enlightenment is not merely a peaceful state of cessation, almost like nonexistence. Buddhahood involves a state of complete awareness that finds blissful expression in a compassion that tirelessly embraces all living beings, manifesting whenever necessary to help them reach their own freedom from suffering.
Professor Thurman describes this vision in the context of the vast and extensive practices of bodhisattvas, the transcendent virtues or perfections. He also tackles an important ancillary aspect of this vision, the notion of the past and future lives of all beings. This is based on the Buddha’s explanation of the principle of cause and effect, which states that no thing arises without cause, there is no uncaused cause, and no cause loses its effect. Thus, we say that consciousness is always preceded by another consciousness, and always gives rise to further consciousness, much in the manner of the continuity of physical energy. The idea that we live many lives before and many after this present one, the quality of which is affected by our own conduct and motivation, provides the context for appreciating the great rarity and value of life as a free and fortunate human being. Moreover, understanding that all beings have already lived countless lives allows us to accept our interdependence and appreciate that at some time every being has been kind to us in some way.
Most spiritual traditions relate their systems of ethics to some sense of continuity of life after death because the potential consequence of our deeds is what gives meaning to our lives. Understanding actually how this continuity works is considered to be extremely difficult, something accessible only to the mind of a buddha. On the one hand, it is difficult for us to check the existence of past and future lives for ourselves. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent, we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. On the other hand, the Buddha stated clearly that our awareness of both the impact of our previous lives on this life and the consequences of our present deeds on our future lives is an essential way to motivate a proper sense of ethical maturity and spiritual development.
The question of past and future lives can be difficult for people brought up in the modern world, used to adopting a view that accords with what can be physically proven. But even modern science still does not know with certainty what the facts of consciousness actually are, how it functions, or what its complete nature is. Therefore, I am glad to see that Bob Thurman has addressed some of these issues straightforwardly in this book with his usual vigor and wit.
July 18, 2003
Invitation to the Infinite Life
I was twenty-one years old and a novice monk studying with the Reverend Geshe Wangyal at his tiny Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America in Freewood Acres, New Jersey. The small settlement consisted of Mongolian, Russian, and Eastern European refugees living in tract houses in the Jersey Pine Barrens. At around 10:15 on a spring morning, I was walking along East Second Street to a corner store up on Route 9, sent to buy a quart of milk for midmorning tea. I was moving briskly west, passing on my left a faded white picket fence that surrounded a small house. As I crossed the driveway, something amazing happened to me.
I experienced a disorienting sensation that I can only describe as the feeling of a push-pressure on my tailbone suddenly dislodging itself. The pressure gone, I immediately saw that I had always been feeling as if I were being pushed along from behind toward my destination, not only to the grocery store on Route 9 but to my destiny in life, to the future in general. The change in sensation gave me a pronounced feeling of relief, a sense of release. I became vividly self-aware of my posture—my brow had been clenched slightly, shoulders hunched up, torso leaning forward, pelvis retracted, and lower back arched. I spontaneously slowed my pace and straightened up my body. A ripple of relaxation moved down my frame, and I felt buoyed by the released momentum.
Looking around me as if for the first time, I noticed the flowers planted beyond the fence I had just walked past, the broader street on my right, and the blue sky filled with fluffy clouds. Then I became aware of a deeper layer of thoughts in my mind, well beneath my thinking about getting to the store, getting the milk, and getting back to Geshe-la and his guests to serve the tea. These deeper thoughts had been circling intently in my head around the Buddhist concept of “beginninglessness.” I had first encountered the notion as Geshe-la read to me the Tibetan translation of Nāgārajuna’s “Friendly Letter” to the South Indian King Udayi of the Shatavahana Dynasty (circa second century CE). What a funny expression, I’d thought, to talk of “from the beginninglessness.” In Western books, “in the beginning” is all we ever hear about. What was this “beginninglessness,” I wondered?
All at once, I grasped the concept with full clarity. “Aha!” I thought, “when we say ‘in the beginning,’ we implicitly assume that there is an absolute beginning behind us in time, as if our being and doings were pushing off from a back boundary. I have been driven by that sense of push my whole life, without even realizing it. Amazing! But if life is indeed beginningless, this means that my past has, in fact, been infinite. The future will be too. So there is no big rush to get somewhere. I am mistaken in my compulsion. I can take my time, and take more care, to make sure to go where I want to go. What a thrill! A bit of release, a taste of freedom, no more involuntary pressure—so this is beginninglessness.”
I was delighted to begin to understand the Buddhist world I was so drawn to, and amazed to actually feel that understanding in my body. I experienced a physical release from a hitherto unrecognized but now obviously bothersome pressure. Returning to the business of the moment, I practically skipped to the store, each step fresh and spontaneous.
A weight was lifted from my body, a clamp removed from my heart. I had begun to break free from my inherited life of bondage to enter a new life unbound, an infinite life.
A Blissful Vacation
Is it not everyone’s deepest wish to be profoundly and securely happy, joyfully and lovingly able to share that happiness with friends and neighbors as well as all the world’s people and animals? To feel an inner bliss that does not depend on this or that circumstance, fortune, or success, but springs from deep within our hearts, from a place of fundamental well-being? To experience a grounding sense of the deep goodness of reality, which fills us with an unconditional joy that energizes our lives? I believe it is. Yet our culture constantly tells us that such joy is not possible, even that it is suspect. It tells us that the world is evil or inadequate and needs fixing. It tells us to think that we need this or that thing or relationship or leader or accomplishment in order to experience even a moment of contentment. They say that deep, unconditional happiness is not just unrealistic, but illegal, immoral, and unhealthy.
Often Buddhist teachings—the Dharma bequeathed to us by so many enlightened ones, which as I grow older more and more has a lifesaving effect on me every day—are misunderstood. They are falsely taught as if the Buddha agreed with all these naysayers, as if he were in fact the ultimate naysayer, the all-time champion of killjoys. “Life is suffering,” he seems to have said, “so better to escape from it.” How gloomy and sad!
But the truth is, the Buddha definitely did not condemn us to the unhappiness that many conventional societies and cultures, including our own, make us feel is inevitable. On the contrary, he discovered and proclaimed that total freedom from suffering—exquisite, enduring joy—is extremely possible for every sensitive being. It is only the unenlightened, self-centered, and self-constricted being who is temporarily incapable of real happiness. Most of us have a strong yet unwarranted sense of having a fixed, unchanging, limited “self” that is totally separate from all other beings. This combines with our narrow view that our existence is random and terminal; it only starts when we are born and ends abruptly when we die. Fixed and alienated, random and terminal—together these form a vicious combination. In the end, we are left feeling bereft and slightly depressed, living a life seeming to be utterly devoid of meaning. I call this “terminal living.”
We can free ourselves from such a terminal existence simply by becoming aware of our misconceptions and their impact on our way of being. Once we have accepted the fact that we ourselves may be the main cause of our own unhappiness, we become determined to understand the problem fully and to solve it as soon as possible. With simple guidance, we easily discover the limiting force to be our own misunderstanding of the reality of the world and of ourselves. The first step toward true contentment lies in confronting the fundamental problem of our rigid self-sense. When we look carefully for our “self,” we cannot find it. We discover the error that is the cause of our problem, and we begin to grasp the concepts of selflessness, interconnectedness to others, and infinite life. Now we can set ourselves free to experience the full satisfaction with ourselves, others, and our world that Buddhists call “enlightenment” or “awakening.”
The great kindness of the Buddha (and many other enlightened beings who have shared their teachings with us) is that he created a method whereby we can use reason to get ourselves away from the imprisoning “self.” That is why we sing Buddha’s praises. He has invited us to join a lifelong blissful vacation from our domineering selves.
I began studying Buddhism forty years ago and became a monk precisely to go on a blissful vacation. Sometimes I wish I had spent these many years on such a retreat. Maybe after forty years, I would have actually achieved something. Who knows? As it was, I left the monastic community and returned to the U.S. to share the Buddha’s message with my American sangha, or community. As things go in America, I’ve been working like a mad dog ever since.
When I came back to New York in 1965, I found there was no support for the blissful vacation I had discovered while studying to become a monk at the Dalai Lama’s community in exile in India. I said, “Hey, let’s have a blissful vacation.” The response was, “Blissful? We’ve got the Vietnam War. We’ve got to stop the Pentagon! We’ve got to stop the corporations! We’ve got to do important things!” You know, American life. “You want to be blissful?” people asked. “Take Librium. There’s no joy in this world. That’s unrealistic.” Isn’t that our society? “Besides, you’ll get to experience the bliss of being nothing when you die. Anyway, I’ve got to get back to work!” I get that same response from people all around the world today—I often even feel that way myself, as things go from bad to worse, when looked at from the materialistic perspective.
But we can change that, you and I. We can join the peaceful, cool, inner revolution. Why don’t we have a year-round blissful vacation? We could all form big caravans and wander around, following the sun. It could be summer all the time. Gradually, more disenchanted people would join us. That’s what Tibet was like before the Chinese invaded. Since 1409, they were on a blissful vacation, many people wandering on pilgrimage or staying still on retreat. They were on vacation, the whole country—I mean it. A few people had to make mo-mo dumplings and a few yaks were sadly sacrificed for food, and sure, some people were not very enlightened at all. It was a bit funky, of course imperfect—but it worked pretty well. With all its grime and low-tech infrastructure, it was the closest any human society so far ever came to experiencing the delightful quality of life that the Buddha tells us is our birthright, our destiny. With its inspiration we can create an even more joyous society today!
I’m writing this book because I want you to see that your blissful vacation is absolutely possible. There is a life that isn’t all pointless, yet full of cell phones and deadlines and total pressure all the time. There is a life that is free, boundless, happy, and full of wisdom and natural purpose. And the great news is that you don’t have to go sit by yourself on some mountaintop to gain the insights that I’m going to share with you here. I mean, sure, if you want total enlightenment on a tight schedule, then you will have to go someday to become a monk or nun or some other kind of professional evolver, an ardent retreatant. But even in the midst of my crazy, pressure-filled New York City life, I am able to experience, joyously contemplate, and discuss with others the immanence of nirvana, the blissful vacation, and relish the aura of total peace and happiness. So you can, too. When more of us do that, we get one step closer to making it real, here and now. And that is precisely what I am going to help you do.
Today—which is the day you read these words, dear reader—I invite you to enter this new realm of existence! Turn back from rushing ahead and face the facts of your life. See it bound by arbitrary limitations. Note how birth and death are imagined as concrete boundaries for no good reason: You can’t remember the one and would rather not imagine the other. Take heart. Use your common sense and critical intelligence to awaken. Stop taking for granted your inherited conventional reality. Question even your habitual instincts. Take the plunge into the ocean of boundless freedom. Embrace the mystery. Discover the reality of infinite life!
The Buddha was one of the foremost planetary teachers of the human right, human ability, and human responsibility to achieve the perfect, unconditional happiness that surely is the innermost wish of most people. I follow his inspiring example and write these words for each of you, to help you learn to trust that wish, and to follow the drive of your deepest spirit of intelligent love and courageous goodwill toward a more happy life for yourself and others.
The Nature of Reality
When I give a talk on whatever topic, at some point I open up the infinite life dimension and invite people to join me in the year-round, lifelong blissful vacation. People often come up to me afterward. They will say, “I love what you said. I hope it’s so. But, you know, I still have trouble with that future life stuff.” I always say to them, as I say to you now, “The real trouble is with your sense of your present life. You tend to feel boxed in, and you don’t know why. As long as you haven’t come to feel as common sense, as natural, your life continuity, the reality of your own former and future lives, then you won’t be able to be the happy person you really are! So move your mind away from the surface problem and try to look critically at your sense of this life, how it feels, where it comes from, how plausible is it, really?”
If you feel the infinite life perspective is a problem for you, I don’t demand that you just drop everything and “believe” in it. Rather, I encourage you to go to work on the issue. I’ll keep coming back to it. I more and more have come to feel that if anything positive could result from my teaching, any real benefit for any person, it should be that they get just a hint of the reality of their own former and future lives, that they diminish just the tiniest bit their usual “only this one life” sense of cosmic disconnection, loneliness, alienation, and meaninglessness. I want everyone to be able to see more clearly their culturally common belief that, “My life only began when I was born and it ends when I die. So my responsibility to the universe is limited and even my responsibility to myself is limited. Nothing really matters because we’ll all be nothing in the end.” If nothing else, I want to help you free yourself from that trap, that imprisoning way of thinking. To intensify your spiritual evolution, the first and most important step you must take is to embrace your boundlessness, take responsibility for your infinite continuity, and live your immortality here and now.
Religions make a big deal out of telling people, “You have an immortal soul!” The materialist scientist makes a big deal out of telling them, “You don’t have any soul at all! That’s only a religious superstition! You die, you’re gone, full stop!” The Buddhist “inner scientist” disagrees with the religious claim: “You don’t have some fixed inner essence that can be disconnected from your total you and put on a shelf in heaven, staying unchanged immortally while the rest of you rots!” And she also disagrees with the materialist scientist: “There is no full stopping of anything, it’s nonsense to say something can become nothing; your consciousness is a something, just like your body! You are body and mind, spirit and soul—the whole ‘you’ is what is immortal! Always has been and always will be, living and dying, changing and experiencing. The question is not really whether or not you go on, but rather how are you going to enjoy it? How are your friends going to enjoy you, once you’re all going to be there together forever?”
When some people hear the word “reincarnation,” they automatically think that the person speaking is a nut, a weirdo, or some kind of New Age hippie. It’s so ingrained in our heads by our scientific, materialistic culture that the idea is absurd. Carl Sagan thought the belief in future lives was wishful thinking by religious fanatics, an immature clinging to continuing existence by those not brave enough to face extinction. And Carl was a brave man, leaving his tenured position at Cornell to be what many considered a crackpot, running his SETI project to look for intelligent life on other planets.
Why is it so difficult for us to accept the continuation of our personal existence throughout many lives? After all, due to our educated familiarity with the theory of biological evolution, we freely embrace the concept of the evolution of life forms. We accept that we all came out of a primordial stew and that now we’re these incredibly complex beings with brains, eyes, and fingers who have created communities, cultures, languages, and highly supportive habitats. We’ve slowly and miraculously evolved from tiny amoebas into lizards into birds into apes into Shakespeares, Mozarts, Emily Dickinsons, Einsteins, Gandhis, and all kinds of amazing human beings. If we believe that this sort of ongoing physical and mental evolution is possible, then why should it be impersonal and random, a haphazard progression of material forms? Why do we have so much trouble acknowledging a spiritual evolutionary continuum interwoven with the material genetic development? If there are material genes, why can’t there be “spiritual genes”?
I’m very sorry to shake up the materialist scientist’s sense of history and “progress,” but long before Darwin and company, the Buddha and his contemporaries had already “discovered” evolution. He clearly saw that the life-form of the human being was not sui generis and was not the creation of a “God,” but was evolutionarily connected with all other life-forms, had developed out of them and could also regress back into them. Only he went even further than the materialist scientists. He made evolution a personal matter; he acknowledged that it involves the subjective agencies of beings, intentions, and minds. It is not merely an impersonal biological process of atoms and molecules and cells. He saw that living beings do evolve—progress and regress—in a more than strictly physical sense. He taught that we are not merely passive inheritors of genetic codes. We also personally and intentionally evolve ourselves toward higher states of awareness and happiness, or deteriorate ourselves toward lesser awareness and more wretched embodiments. We do so not just in this life, or in a few lives, but over the course of billions of lives, just as it takes billions of lives for a paramecium to become a butterfly.
Why is this so hard to believe? After all, you and I and Darwin and Shakyamuni Buddha were all in the primordial soup together, little slimy creatures with no brains or eyes. And now we are here. Isn’t it realistic that our continuity of mental awareness is also here with us, in the same radically transformed and transforming sense that our physical genetic codes are here with us? Why should mind be the one element of reality that is arbitrarily selected to be more nonexistent than matter? Of course, mind cannot be found by means of scientific analysis. But no one has ever found even one atom that can withstand analysis either! There is no thing that anyone has ever found that stands indivisible as a thing in itself. All things, material as well as mental, have only relational, ascribed reality. So it is sheer dogmatism, prejudice, unscientific arbitrariness to insist that matter does exist but mind does not. So an evolutionary biology that excludes the agency and continuity of beings’ minds is highly unscientific, philosophically naïve, and pragmatically inaccurate.
I have a theory about why we’re so reluctant even to entertain the possibility that our existences might go on: The idea just scares the pants off of us! We find the vista of infinite future lives simply terrifying. Because if we believe we will live on, it inevitably leads to anxiety about the form of our continued existence. Will it be good or bad? Pleasant or unpleasant? Will we be human again, angelic or maybe even divine, or insectlike, or something more terrible? When people refuse to believe in their inevitable reincarnation in whatever form their unconscious, instinctual dispositions dictate, they are emotionally trying to avoid the danger of being reborn as a spider, or even worse, in a hell—and the hellfires of the ancestral preachers are crackling away in their unconscious, now and then vividly illustrated in horror movies. That’s why we are so desperate to believe that we’ll be nothing after death, that the mind is just a buzz of electricity that will one day fizzle out like an old lightbulb. After all, there is a clear relief you can feel, especially when things get tough, in thinking that your life will end someday. We just want to escape.
But don’t be fooled by the false promise of security in oblivion. Bars may keep the outside world away but they also imprison you within them. The denial type of defense against an uncertain yet boundless future traps you in a stagnant present. Instead, see your fear itself as the problem and allow your courage to rise as the more natural response. Feel a new kind of strength surge forth from the fullness of your sense of continuing throughout many lives. Forever changing, but forever taking responsibility for seeing that it’s forever good!
We often sleep on a difficult problem when we are just too tired to deal with it at night. We all know how it feels to wake up the next morning with that problem still before us. We don’t remember it at first—then it hits us. “Ugh,” we think, “it’s still there.” Many of us feel the same way about dying. We try to push the thought away, but every once in a while it creeps into our consciousness with a giant “ugh.” We feel queasiness in the pit of our stomachs. How many of us are ready to die right now? How many of us have all our projects accomplished, all the loose ends tied up? How many of us are free of any haunting guilt about negative things we’ve done? Or on the positive side, how many of us feel that we have already done all we possibly can for ourselves and for those we love?
Thinking along these lines brings to mind the philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal’s famous wager, in which he establishes that a belief in the existence of God is rational. We can use his principle to support reincarnation, too. From a strictly realistic perspective, should we bet on infinite life and endless consequences to our actions? Pascal would argue that our answer must be a resounding “Yes!” We might as well assume that there will be a future continuity of our personal consciousness, however changed, however disembodied or re-embodied, however connected or disconnected we remain to the “self” we experience in this life. If we make that bet on our own future lives, then we will prepare in whatever way we can to assure that we continue in a good way, in a better embodiment and environment. We will become truly responsible for our thoughts and our acts. Even though we may not remember the previous-life self who made those preparations, we certainly will want to enjoy the results. If our bet is misplaced, and our preparations have no effect because we actually do enter oblivion at death, we will simply not exist to regret having made them. But if we wrongly bet on noncontinuity and therefore do not prepare for the future and have to face it unprepared, then we may suffer seriously in our next existence, and we will very much regret our decision. Even if we don’t remember making it, don’t know why we are suffering, don’t know how to fault ourselves for being so unconscious in our previous life, we will still suffer and regret. Pascal’s wager is therefore a very safe bet—it has a clear-cut positive outcome. Whether our personal life is really terminal at death or in fact infinite in continuity, if we bet, like Pascal, on the existence of our life after death, in whatever form, we will be in the best possible position, however things turn out.
The perspective that life is infinite is not by any means unique to Buddhism: All great religions and spiritual traditions of the world teach the illuminating truth and energizing power of embracing the boundless nature of reality. Despite their many differences, the monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism—all posit a belief that an infinite and all-powerful Being creates and maintains the world. They may or may not emphasize a person’s boundlessness in the past (as in past lives), but all accept the beginningless nature of God, and all focus on the boundlessness of a person’s future with (or without!) God. Each insists that the consequence of true faith and good actions will be endless positive personal continuity (heaven), just as the consequence of bad faith and bad actions will be endless negative personal continuity (hell). While followers of these traditions may be frightened by the negative vistas of infinite and eternal hells, they find the positive vistas of infinite heavenly proximity or unity with the Divine highly illuminating, motivating, and beneficial.
Thus in the grip of their faith, enlightened monotheists expand toward an infinite horizon by emphasizing their sense of connectedness and continuity with God. When they say, “I am reborn through Jesus Christ!” “Stay with me, O God of Israel!” “Allah is great!” “Lord Krishna lives in me!” “Homage to Shiva!” “Save me, O all-powerful Mother!” and so forth, they express the great release of this feeling. Unfortunately, people can get caught up in the egotistical possession of “their God” and often lose track of this sense of boundless well-being.
On the other side of the spectrum, secular humanists reject the exclusivist and literalist claims of the religious worldviews, finding meaning instead in science and reason. Nevertheless, humanists experience the infinite nature of life, too, in keeping alive their spirit of inquiry and adventure. They touch boundlessness through their curiosity and openness to the wonders of the universe, and feel connected to the vastness of evolution, the limitlessness of the cosmos, the endlessness of the future of their descendants, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit, imagination, and creativity. Think of how infinite you can feel while staring at the ocean, marveling at how those waves have continued tumbling ceaselessly, churning forth life for billions of years. Or consider the profound sense of connection with all life you gain from gazing up at a clear night sky in the wilderness, marveling at the inconceivable profusion of stars in the vast depths of space.
Those who search for the truth, strive for the good, enjoy the beautiful, and live happy and creative lives do so to the extent that their worldview avoids restricting life to a limited and concretized circle of meaninglessness. In their reality, life remains open to the infinite in time and space. Thus secular humanists also already live boundlessly to some degree, although their vision is cramped by the belief that the self’s continuum does not proceed into future lives.
Consequences of Infinite Life
The Buddha taught that immense positive potential exists within each and every one of us, just waiting to be unleashed. We are naturally full of love and compassion since we have labored long and virtuously throughout many lives to become human beings. Now, with our highly advanced life-form relatively free from negative instinctual drives, we are poised and ready to pursue the path to the total bliss that is enlightenment.
The actuality of our past personal continuity is so important because it bears so strongly on our future. Where will we go from here? Our spiritual evolution, like our physical development, is an ongoing process. When you take responsibility for it, you can consciously, and therefore more accurately, aim yourself toward the achievement of a secure state of bliss for yourself and for others. You gain a sense of connectedness with all life that gives you great strength. You become determined to develop positively. You realize how tremendously meaningful is the slightest action, word, or even thought, and so you take ever more care to be virtuous in your acts of body, speech, and mind.
I call this the real “evolutionary insight”—the sense of personal involvement in your own inevitable evolutionary causality. While there is no avoiding the chance that you might experience great negativity at some point in the future, the risk is worthwhile because the evolutionary insight brings with it an infinite horizon of positivity. You benefit from a healthy alertness to the danger of evolutionary self-neglect.
When you realize the boundless nature of your self, you know your immortality and so take responsibility for its good quality. You gradually but perceptibly brighten and energize your world until you break out of your shell, opening your cocoon to spread your colorful wings and fly up into the sunlight. You no longer need fear death, as you know that you will merely pass into another life. You can experience the taste of true freedom for the first time, just as I did when I floated down that street in New Jersey years ago. You can feel confident that you will find fulfillment and empowerment, if not now then at some point in the future. When you frame your present existence in this radically transformed context, you make the shift from terminal life to infinite life, and suddenly everything becomes possible.
The Terminal Life
If the infinite life acknowledged is free and full of endless possibilities, then what is the terminal, constricted, finite life? It is just the opposite—a life limited in possibilities and human potential, a life that does not motivate us to achieve fulfillment for ourselves or for those around us. Where does the bounded life perspective come from? And how can you avoid falling prey to it?
Unfortunately, there are numerous worldviews that bind our lives in concrete finitude, but these can be boiled down to two that are most common and ruinous. One is the terminal life of bondage to nihilistic materialism. The other is the terminal life of bondage to an idolatrous interpretation of spiritualistic theism, whether monotheism or some other absolutism. There are thus both materialistic and spiritualistic forms of bondage.
Being a nihilistic materialist does not mean just being materialistic, an avid consumer of material things. Someone who enjoys beautiful things is not necessarily a nihilistic materialist, for example. She may be a spiritual, kind, loving person committed to the best of all possible worlds for all beings, but one who simply wants material comforts while working on those long-term goals. (Perhaps she thinks that she’ll be better able to make others happy if she’s not too miserable herself along the way.) No, bondage to nihilistic materialism comes from being imprisoned in an unrealistic world-picture. Most of us with a modern education have been conditioned from an early age to accept a philosophically materialistic, so-called “scientific” worldview. This view of reality is not presented to us as a possible theory about the nature of life. Rather, it is presented dogmatically, as if it were a fact, the only thing, the one true reality. We are made to feel as if scientific geniuses had directly and comprehensively encountered this nihilistic worldview and verified it with mathematical precision using machines that produce “hard” data.
According to the nihilistic materialist construct of reality, we have no souls. Spirituality is no more than childish superstition and misplaced sentimentality based on ignorance of the true facts known to scientists. We are created at a certain moment, as yet not fully pinned down by exact measurement, out of the genetically encoded materials of the sperm and ovum of our parents. “We” are, of course, our subjectively conscious selves, whose consciousness and self-consciousness supposedly evolve at a moment when our brain matter and/or socialization reaches a certain, as yet unspecified level of complexity. Once we are conscious, we are granted the status of “persons” and allowed certain rights; our personhood is somewhat respected. However, ultimately we do not actually or substantially exist as we perceive ourselves to exist, and so it seems quite easy for the materialists to deprive us of our life once we break certain rules, fail to conform to the right ideas, or belong to the wrong clan, religion, nation, race, or gender. Killing is lamentable, but we console ourselves with the thought that once the victims are dead they no longer regret having lost their lives, since they simply cease to exist and can no longer remember that they once lived.
At death, the illusion of subjective existence is shattered when the brain ceases to function. We return from complexity and its dreams to the nothingness whence we arose. During the moments of our lives, we feel conscious (at some usually unacknowledged level) of the fact that death can instantaneously reduce us from self-sensing beings to the insensate nothingness that is our essential reality. We therefore can convince ourselves without too much difficulty, when chronic pain becomes too much for us, that suicide is a viable option, since we picture ourselves slipping quietly into a state of permanent anesthesia.
Assuming that its reality has been proven, we live in bondage to the nihilism of this worldview. We occupy ourselves with materialism rather than spirituality. We feel it is a sign of maturity to resign ourselves to the seeming fact that there is no meaning to our existence—and of course no meaning to anything else either, so we don’t have to take it personally. We do have a certain kind of freedom that comes from a devil-may-care attitude about it all, since we feel that a quick exit into nothingness is the worst that can happen to us, no matter what we do or don’t do. But we have no rational motivation for sustained effort at personal positive evolution, since whatever we make of ourselves will terminate at death. Nor do we have any ultimate motivation to treat others well or contribute to their development, since they also will simply die in the end. We live and work for results in this life only, which we know can end at any time. While we may get enthusiastic about success in some field, enjoying its limited fruits for a while, we do not feel that our efforts will be that powerful or enduring. When times are good, we may be a considerate lover, mate, parent, friend, or colleague, but in tough times we don’t have any reason to make sacrifices beyond a certain point of self-interest. Ultimately unmotivated, we lack the power to give something to eternity, so to speak. The concepts of “soul mate,” “spiritual friend,” and so on are meaningless, although we may find “soul food” tasty.
Some may still find this worldview appealing. It seems to fit the ancient encouragement: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” (and return to quiet nothingness!). How, you might wonder, is this a prison? Here we are with no heavy burdens or big worrisome missions, only free time on our hands. We’ve got to make some effort to learn how to get along and get ahead. If we’re lucky we can live comfortably and then check out whenever we want. Life is no big deal. There are no consequences to our actions; no boring singing in heavenly choirs; no eternal roasting in hell. We live and love and work and play, and then end up in a state that resembles a good night’s sleep that never ends. Just exactly what’s the problem with this perspective?
I quite agree that things could be worse. I love a good night’s sleep myself. I also have been educated to believe in this world-picture. But the question remains: Is it a true picture? Is this the reality of life, death, and the world? What is the evidence for it? How has it been confirmed? Is it a scientific discovery and a rational theory? Or is it a dogmatic fabrication and an irrational delusion? And why does it matter?
I once had a meeting with a neuroscientist about a possible project that would use sensitive machines to measure the brain patterns of experienced yogis. At one point I mentioned something about Tibetan adepts who preserved memories of out-of-body near-death and after-death states, then returned to their previous sensory bodies and brains to tell about it. The scientist, his white coat flapping with his excitement, leapt up and ran around the large hospital conference room, fiercely scolding me, “What are you talking about? Never mention such things in this place. Everyone knows there are no states of consciousness beyond brain death! It is completely confirmed: once the brain is gone, that’s it. Anything else is crazy talk. Superstition. Primitive thinking.” On and on he went. I was so startled by his emotional vehemence that I felt concerned for his health. I assured him I wouldn’t bring it up again, that we would only consider live yogis for the project and that we would stick to meditation states. He calmed down and we completed our meeting.
A day or two later, I was in a cab riding to a different meeting when I startled the driver by bursting out laughing from a total silence. It had taken a few days, but I’d suddenly realized the flaw in my neuroscientist friend’s thinking, so radically confused you could easily miss it. By definition, the only thing that can never be discovered, can never be confirmed rationally, is precisely that which he was so certain about—that is, “nothing.” “Nothing” is the “one thing” we can be sure ahead of time that no one will ever find. No one can verify that it exists because it does not exist, simply by definition. It is not a thing. It is not a place. Nothing can come from it or enter into it. It has no size or dimension, nor can it have any location. It is not relatable to anything, and so is not really relevant to anything. It is the one word that has no referent: the word “nothing” refers to nothing by not referring to anything! Nothing is not a state of something. So our society’s conviction that “nothingness” is the final state of our lives is merely an irrational assumption based on a simple confusion about and, as Wittgenstein would say, a misuse of, language.
All things in nature are “somethings” that constantly change into other “somethings.” No one has ever seen anything become nothing. When wood burns, it does not disappear; rather, heat rises invisibly out of it and ashes are left behind. Ice melts into water, and water evaporates into vapor. Flowers decay into the soil, which in turn feeds the growth of new flowers. “Entropy” means that certain types of energy can become so diffuse that they cease to function in any perceptible way, but that still does not mean that they become nothing. There is, in fact, nothing scientific about our insistence on nothingness.
So where does this feeling of nothingness that seems to lie at the bottom of our lives come from? Since the Renaissance, Western scientists have been fighting to escape from the antirational, dogmatic cosmology of the church, to break the hold of the church over the minds of people. In the past, the church held the populace in thrall by convincing them that it had control over the destiny of their souls: those who refused the authority of the church would meet with eternal damnation and hellfire in the afterlife. Even in this life, the church had the power to destroy any who sought to explore the world using their own senses and reason, launching inquisitions against those who disagreed with their sanctioned worldview. They silenced Galileo and burned Giordano Bruno as well as many other scientists and philosophers. So naturally the scientists revolted. René Descartes constantly proclaimed his allegiance and faith, yet cleverly reduced the soul, consciousness, mind, and even God to a dimensionless point, effectively outside the world that “mattered.” Subsequent scientists declared the exclusive existence of “matter,” defining the spiritual as beyond rational consideration, reducing the soul to insignificance.
Science has enjoyed great success in the industrial age. Its discoveries, theories, and technologies have enabled us to create great machines that produce spectacular effects. And yet its practitioners have now developed in the universities something like a mother church of “scientism,” or scientific materialism, along with their own sort of inquisition to maintain materialist orthodoxy. They have come to enjoy a hold over people’s minds by assuring us of their control over the destiny of our souls—ultimately painless entry into guaranteed oblivion. They promise a wild ride on amazing machines while living, and a painless oblivion at the end. They offer security that there will be no hellfire or damnation. Even Hitler and Mao will never burn, though their actions burned so many others. Once dead, they escape consequences, no matter what they did.
It seems that many scientists have succumbed to the temptation of their institutional power. Like the church in days of old, they offer philosophical confusion, metaphysical dogmas, priestly jargon, mathematical magic spells, mechanical miracles, and inquisitorial intimidation to maintain the world-picture by means of which they hold us in thrall. But as we have just seen, they do not have, and by definition cannot possibly acquire, any such certain knowledge that the underlying reality of life and therefore inevitable destiny of our consciousness is nothingness. Therefore we must accept the possibility that we will have some continuum of experience after death that could, after all, be called “a soul.”
Nihilists can taste a certain freedom through nothingness. After all, if everything is equally nothing when reduced to its essence, then you can feel a connection to everything in your shared essential nothingness. Nihilists can say to the world, “We share the profound fact that fundamentally we’re all equally nothing.” However, this kind of connection has the ultimately weak link of nothingness at its center and hence has very little impact.
Ancient Indian philosophers, probably the most sophisticated thinkers the world has yet seen, disagreed on numerous points but agreed on one thing: nihilists are the least fortunate people of all. They have no motivation to join the play of evolution wholeheartedly, no compelling reason to do anything for anyone beyond seeking immediate comfort for themselves and their loved ones in this life. This basic lack of positive drive causes them to waste the precious moments of the self-conscious, critically discerning human lifetime, the lifetime that can lead to the most miraculous achievements and the highest bliss for self and other.
Spiritualistic absolutism refers to the belief that one’s terminal and insignificant life belongs completely to an all-powerful, absolutely Other, Divine Being. While this form of bondage may seem less prevalent today, more like a pre-modern mindset, in fact huge numbers of literate persons in so-called modern societies, such as America, continue to be imprisoned by spiritualistic absolutism. It is not the real teaching of the universal religions, but is a common misinterpretation of all of them (including Buddhism).
All successful religions teach that there is a State or Being or Power which, though it may not be bound to a particular form, manifestation, or concept, is the creative force, fundamental to life, all-powerful and all-knowing, unbreakable by anything else. This Force, fortunately, is full of love, benevolently willing the welfare and happiness of all beings. The founding thrust of these religions is that they encourage humans to orient themselves toward this Ultimate Reality in order to transcend their self-centeredness, their grasping, their pride, and their tendencies to harm others, and to achieve the freedom of infinite life. Therefore, as we have seen, it is entirely possible for enlightened theists to embrace the boundlessness of existence. Religions do open the door to the infinite life perspective. But religions can also be misappropriated precisely when people lose their openness to the infinite and become entrenched in spiritualistic absolutism, which has proven to be immensely dangerous throughout history.
Ever since Moses’ prohibition of idolatry mentioned “graven images,” the Western tendency has been to think of idolatry as the worship of physical representations of gods. We assume that a “graven image” must be a thing, such as the famous golden calf, or even a statue of Jesus on a cross, a Virgin Mary with Christ-child, a buddha or a bodhisattva, a Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, or Shakti goddess—which physical images people wrongly consider to actually be the Divine Being. But it’s not that simple. Is a graven image really only an idol made of metal, stone-carved, printed in a book, or painted on a wall? Is it merely a physical image? Not at all. “Graven” may seem at first to refer only to the physical world, but are there not other ways in which we “engrave” images? Can we not engrave with our speech some verbal image of the divine to which we become attached? Are there not those whose word for “God” becomes the sacred itself, so that they feel moved to kill those who use a different word for the Divine? Can we not hold a graven image in our innermost thoughts? We know the power of the human mind. Therefore, we must count “graven images” as mental and verbal as well as physical representations. And we must define “idolatry” more broadly to mean the replacing of the infinite by a finite entity constructed by our own hands, tongues, and imaginations.
The misuse of the world religions, where their ideas and institutions have caused the most harm to individuals and whole societies, comes from just such conceptual idolatry, my term for this most dangerous kind. This occurs when human egotism and selfishness restrict the Divine to merely personal or tribal or national possessions, as exclusive forms, as finite entities; that is, when people conceive of the Divine as idols, whether physical (statues, paintings, mountains, rivers, sky, oceans), verbal (particular languages, sacred sounds, holy books, magic spells), or mental (specific concepts of absolute Beings or Nonbeings).
Such idolatry causes humans to proclaim: “This is my God!” “This is my divine right!” “This is my ultimate reality!” “My beliefs are more important than yours!” “My way is the only way!” Such idolatry lies at the heart of holy wars, crusades, and jihads, and even the secular, ideological movements of capitalist modernization and communist liberation. Such idolatry has empowered mass persecutions, witch-burnings, self-immolations, and many other kinds of religious and ideological fanaticism. Only spiritual absolutists can feel confident enough in the ultimate validity and dominance of their beliefs to kill in the name of their God, or their Reality, believing that they will be absolved and suffer no negative consequences of their actions.
Take, for example, the Muslim extremists who flew airplanes full of people into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, destroying thousands of innocent lives. Or the Irish Catholic and Protestant terrorists in the U.K., whose constant battles result in bombings that murder citizens who are just going about their daily business. Or the decades of mutual atrocities between Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka. Or the Hindu–Muslim conflicts in India and Pakistan. Or the many mass killings committed by fanatical communists against religious people of various persuasions during the last century. Such religious or ideological absolutists are completely willing to sacrifice their own lives or anybody else’s life to a supposedly better, bigger cause—the defense of the absolute dominance of their Gods, their religion, their ideology, or their way of life. Who among us would say that their actions contribute to bringing humanity a step closer to nirvana? Who would argue that they have done anything to help us find happiness and harmony? These are very real examples of the sort of damage that can, and does, result from absolutism still today.
Trapped in a tightly bounded worldview, such conceptually idolatrous spiritual absolutists feel their own lives to be essentially an absolute nothingness. They envision all being, reality, destiny, power, and knowledge to belong in the hands of the all-powerful, absolute Deity. They believe that we were nothing before conception or birth, when our inner essence, a mere spark of the great fire of the One, was created from the One. At death, we will return back to the One, where we will again be nothings in ourselves, will no longer have individual continuity or self-awareness apart from the Great One.
Posted February 22, 2011
No text was provided for this review.